Inside the Dark Lego Trade

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In the middle of Manhattan, just a few blocks from the Flatiron Building, the Lego Store sits bright and colorful, built brick-by-brick to elicit a sense of wonder and imagination from people of all ages. But it is more than a specialty toy shop; it is also a target environment for thieves in illicit Lego trade.

The little plastic boxes you played with as a kid may be worth a fortune now. Lego has produced building sets since the 1950s, inspiring creativity in children for generations up to the present day. In 2014, “The Lego Movie” boosted the brand’s popularity, making the toys even more profitable than before.

As a result, Lego toys have become a strangely valuable commodity to trade in certain underground criminal markets. Lego bandits have made thousands of dollars all across the country. Just earlier this year, police arrested Pavel Kuzik in an undercover sting as he tried to sell stolen Legos to cops in Portland.

Tommy Williamson is the CEO of BrickNerd Enterprises, and has had a close relationship with the Lego toy brand.

“Anytime you have an expensive product in high demand, you’ve got a potential thing for people to steal and make money from,” Williamson told BTRtoday.

In Long Island, 53-year-old Gloria Haas was arrested for stealing roughly 800 Lego sets from a storage facility, according to CNN. She planned to sell the stolen sets on eBay. The snagged toy goods are valued at around $60,000.

And it’s not limited to one-man operations anymore. Lego bandits also organize like bank robbers to sweep stores clean. San Diego police busted a Lego crime in 2015, with five thieves strategically hitting Toys “R” Us stores for the precious plastic within. The estimated value of what was stolen amounted to about $15,000.

One of the biggest Lego busts occurred in Phoenix, Arizona in 2014. According to Phoenix police, four lego shoplifters hatched a scheme to steal Legos from several local Toys “R” Us shops. The heist strategy went as follows: Two people would enter a store, hide the sets under gift bags, and wheel them right out of the store without tripping the alarm. They then sold the Legos to a third person, who would sell them on sites like eBay.

When police busted this Lego cartel, they found an entire garage and three additional storage units full of Legos. According to Officer James Holmes, a Phoenix Police spokesperson, approximately three truckloads worth of the tiny toys were recovered. The sets stolen from local toy stores were valued at about $20,000, while the entire haul pushed $400,000.

Surprisingly, many of these Lego snatchers are Lego fans themselves. “More irksome is that the people who gravitate to Lego and steal and sell it tend to be collectors or builders of their own,” Williamson says. “They’re coming from our ranks and they stoop to this level. It makes everyone in the community mad.”

So what drives people to break the law in order to obtain these toys? For starters, Lego sets are priced as valuable. Some of the pricier ones can run in the hundreds of dollars. The highest priced sets on Amazon range in the thousands. “Lego can get expensive as a hobby,” says Liz Dolinski, co-organizer of the NY Lego Meetup to BTRtoday. “For beginners, the bulk brick sets are a great starting point, but the connoisseurs are often looking for specific pieces. And that can drive up resale prices.”

In addition, as opposed to Playstation 4s or mountain bikes, Lego sets are easy to steal. They usually aren’t stored behind glass or require a key to access. Only really big sets are fixed with an alarm, and that’s only in some stores.

“Toy departments aren’t guarded,” Williamson says. “It’s an easy target with potentially high value.”

Lego sets also grow in value the longer they are sat on; as soon as a particular set is off the production line, it begins to appreciate. For example, when the Lego Millennium Falcon set came out in 2007, its retail value was $500. Nine years later, it sells for around $4000, a 600 percent increase in value. With the release of “Star Wars; The Force Awakens”, it’s possible that the price will climb even higher.

“Lego also retires sets from production each year so that it creates a resale market for the retired sets,” Dolinski adds. “The ‘Cypress Tree’ was a piece I really wanted and I would have been willing to bid pretty high to get it.”

Selling entire sets isn’t even necessary to turn a profit. “A lot of them will steal a set, take the figures out, sometimes reseal the bag and bring the boxes back and return it,” Williamson says, describing how some abduct little lego figures, or Minifigs as they are called, and sell only those to turn a profit. And it works. Minifigs can sell for hundreds of dollars online.

“Not only have they stolen a set and taken the figures out, they’re going to break some kid’s heart when they get the set home and it’s got no figures in it,” Williamson notes.

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