They wore the uniform of average Fairfield professionals -- smart business casual attire -- and acted like typical shoppers, strolling in and out of retail stores in Fairfield Center. But the Sept. 16 shopping trip by the man and woman ended differently than most -- handcuffed in the back of a squad car after Fairfield police discovered in the pair's car almost $5,000 dollars worth of clothes they said was stolen from the Banana Republic outlet on Post Road and other downtown stores.

The suspects -- both from Queens, N.Y. -- represent the new, unassuming faces of a growing problem facing Fairfield and Connecticut as a whole -- organized rings of retail thieves. This organized retail crime may be carried out by groups, gangs and sometimes individuals who acquire large quantities of retail merchandise through theft and fraud. At the Victoria's Secret store in Faifield Center, for instance, police said thieves have stolen a total of more than $11,000 in merchandise in several incidents since last May.

"They have a SWAT-like mentality," Fairfield police Lt. James Perez said of the retail criminals. "They perfect their skills by coordinating with each other."

Nationwide, organized retail crime costs businesses an estimated $15 to $30 billion each year, according to the National Retail Federation. In Connecticut, the problem has prompted the General Assembly to take action. Public Act 10-177, which went into effect Oct. 1, classifies any act of organized retail crime, or acting as an accessory to those crimes, as felonies. Previously, many perpetrators of such crimes were charged only with misdemeanors, which carry less severe penalties.

"This law will give law enforcement the extra teeth we need to not only break up these rings, but to rein them in," Perez said.

The Queens suspects, Perez added, were part of a group of New York state-based shoplifting rings that target higher-end retail stores along the Post Road in affluent Fairfield County. These groups then try to sell the stolen goods at a steep discount at open-air markets or through online auction websites such as eBay.

The foundation of these thieves' effectiveness, Perez said, is their professionalism. Aside from their polished presentation, these shoplifters will operate in clearly defined roles when they commit a theft. For instance, one or two may loiter by a store's entrance as "lookouts" for police. Another may then feign illness to draw store employees' attention, while yet another snatches merchandise. Perez said this latter person will often stuff the goods in aluminum-lined bags that escape detection by a store's security equipment.

In the case of the Queens suspects, Perez said suspicion was initially aroused for a officer passing by the Fairfield shops because the pair frequently entered and left the stores. The male suspect allegedly made a cell phone call after making eye contact with the officer, which Perez said was another indication of suspicious behavior. But he pointed out that such behavior often goes undetected by store employees and customers.

Organized retail criminals "are very good at conning, and they're very good lying as to why they're there" Perez said.

Phone calls about the thefts to the local Banana Republic outlet were directed to the corporate headquarters of its parent company, Gap Inc., which did not return several phone and e-mail inquiries.

Limited Brands, the parent company of Victoria's Secret, released a statement to the Fairfield Citizen saying, "Limited Brands values its relationship with law enforcement and works aggressively with them to deter and identify criminals of theft."

State Rep. Larry Miller, R-121, was a sponsor of the law, when it was known as House Bill 5223. He said the economic downturn has stoked the demand for stolen merchandise. In his district, he said, organized shoplifters will often illegally sell athletic wear to local youths in the parking lots of shopping centers like the Westfield Trumbull mall.

"Every kid wants a set of gym clothing that says Dallas Cowboys or New York Giants," he said. "They'll pay for it, especially when they're getting it at street prices."

Miller acknowledged that the new law may not completely deter organized retail crime, but added that he expects it to facilitate more effective prosecution.

"I was very concerned about the way things were going," he said. "There's got to be something to stop these guys."

Despite the new law, local police said challenges remain to effectively tackling organized retail criminals.

Westport Deputy Police Chief Dale E. Call and Capt. Foti Koskinas said their town suffered a surge in shoplifting several years ago, when merchandise worth more than $15,000 was reported stolen by several Main Street retailers.

Koskinas said his department eventually mitigated the problem by assigning plainclothes officers to monitor vulnerable stores.

"The problem when you do that is sometimes you have to rob Peter to pay Paul," Call said. The conundrum for many police departments, he added, is that they operate with a finite amount of resources, and must decide whether focusing on organized retail crime is as important as other issues.

But the new law should help, and not just law enforcement, according to Fairfield police Sgt. Suzanne Lussier

"This has a cost, and not just for the retailers," she said. "They pass the cost from these thefts on to customers, so everyone hurts."