Cops: Gwinnett teen stole from Kroger by ‘returning’ unsold lottery tickets

Tre Brown, who worked at the Kroger store on Steve Reynolds Boulevard, was arrested last week on one felony count of theft by taking.

Tre Brown, who worked at the Kroger store on Steve Reynolds Boulevard, was arrested last week on one felony count of theft by taking.

A 19-year-old Kroger employee accused of stealing nearly $1 million from the grocery chain over a two-week period did so by “returning” lottery tickets that were never actually sold and then depositing the phony refunds onto his bank card, Gwinnett County police said Friday.

Tre Brown, who worked at the store on Steve Reynolds Boulevard, was arrested last week on one felony count of theft by taking, jail records show.

Gwinnett police spokesman Cpl. Collin Flynn said detectives believe Brown acted alone in stealing the money, and said Friday the teenager could face additional charges as the investigation continues.

Brown’s arrest quickly made national headlines Thursday after police released details of the case. According to investigators, the teen stole more than $980,000 in a short amount of time and then used the funds to buy clothes, guns, shoes and two cars.

One of those vehicles, a Chevrolet Camaro, was purchased and totaled before police could make an arrest in the case, authorities said.

Gwinnett police began investigating Jan. 4 after an employee with Kroger’s loss prevention office called about the alleged theft, according to an incident report obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Authorities said Brown was able to steal the money by entering a code allowing him to return lottery tickets that were never actually sold. He was then able to set the amount to be refunded and swipe his card to have the money deposited into his bank account, according to police.

“It was just like returning any other item where he basically said, ‘This item is being returned’ and then picked an amount for how much to return it for,” Flynn said. “There were no lottery tickets. He just picked lottery tickets as an item to return.”

According to police, Brown returned 40 non-existent items in a span of about two weeks and placed the refunds on several credit cards. Those returns, authorities said, ranged in price from $75 to more than $87,000.

“It sounds like he got away with it, and then as soon as he did, he went a little crazy with it,” Flynn said.

Reactions to the news on social media ranged from amazement at how much was allegedly scammed to questions about why it took so long for anyone to notice. Many commented on the clandestine skills someone would need to pull off such a caper, while others felt certain the alleged theft was the result of an “inside job.”

In an email, a Kroger spokeswoman declined to comment on the ongoing investigation.

Several experts said they were shocked by just how much money was reportedly stolen.

“It’s kind of impressive that he was able to pull this off within a two-week span and not get caught sooner,” Marietta attorney Ashleigh Merchant said.

Thomas Beusse, executive director of the Georgia Retailers, said refund fraud is far less common at grocery stores than it is at other retail establishments. According to a survey conducted last year by the National Retail Federation, the average loss to a company as the result of employee theft was less than $1,140, Beusse said.

“If you look at that average, this case is very unusual,” he said. “Whether it’s an internal theft or an external theft, these companies are spending more and more of their budgets each year to prevent this type of activity ... It’s just a matter of time before retailers will discover you.”

It’s unclear exactly how much jail time Brown could face if convicted. According to Gwinnett court records, the teen doesn’t appear to have a criminal history. Even so, several prosecutors and defense attorneys said he will likely face jail time if convicted.

“He’s in a lot of trouble,” former DeKalb County District Attorney Robert James said. “You don’t steal $1 million and not go to jail. You just don’t.”

In Georgia, the theft of $25,000 or more is punishable by anywhere from two to 20 years in prison, attorneys said. But because Brown is accused of stealing the money over multiple transactions, he could end up being indicted on several counts, according to Lawrence Zimmerman, president of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Experts said Brown’s age, lack of criminal history and the fact that police were able to recover some of the stolen money could help him if his case goes to trial, but attorneys said a person convicted of such a crime would face at least some time behind bars.

“I can’t imagine anybody getting more than 20 years on this,” James said. “But I also can’t imagine, even at the tender age of 18 or 19, not having to spend some time incarcerated on $1 million worth of theft.”

Merchant said there are several ways prosecutors could end up charging Brown: by breaking each transaction into a separate count or by charging him with one count of theft by taking for the entire $980,437 that he allegedly stole.

“Either way, he’s definitely looking at prison time,” she said. “Luckily, it sounds like he doesn’t have a record and he’s young, so hopefully that will count in his favor.”

Merchant also said that any money he’s able to return to the grocery store will likely go a long way to help get a reduced sentence.

Brown was released from jail Jan. 14 after posting $11,200 bond, online records show. No attorney was listed for him as of Friday afternoon.

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