Updated 11/20/11 – 4:13 p.m.

CHICAGO (CBS) — A pre-holiday sting in Cook County targeting professional shoplifters in three locations has culminated in 59 arrests.

As WBBM Newsradio’s Michele Fiore reports, at a news conference Sunday, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez said the investigation, dubbed “Operation Whoville,” took place over the last month on North Michigan Avenue, Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg and Orland Square Mall in Orland Park.

LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio’s Michele Fiore reports

Surveillance video played at the news conference showed how thieves work in teams.

“They are very organized. Everybody has a job to do, they know what it is and they know exactly where the merchandise is going once they get it out of the store,” Alvarez said.

Authorities said these aren’t petty thefts. The thieves got away with large amounts of baby formula, dozens of pairs of name brand jeans and drug store items like razors.

It’s the kind of stuff that brings in big dollars on the black market and costs Illinois $77 million in lost tax revenue, the work of criminals who call themselves “boosters.”

Cook County Assistant State’s Attorney David Williams said, “That’s their day job, is they go in and they steal. They have a place in which they’re going to fence the goods to before they go in, oftentimes going in with a shopping list.”

Alvarez said that in one case, a woman was caught shoving an entire suit jacket down her pants.

“I’m still a little confused as how she was able to walk out with that,” Alvarez said.

Undercover agents from a countywide task force arrested 59 people who targeted malls in Schaumburg and Orland Park; and stores like WalMArt, Dominck’s and The Gap.

Even a heavy and precious $5,000 crystal vase was stolen from a Michigan Avenue store.

“We’re talking about big groups that are stealing large quantities of goods,” Alvarez said.

In some cases the so-called “boosters” will line tote bags with duct tape to keep garment alarms from sounding, but equally troubling is the fact some shady retailers are more than willing to purchase and resell these items.

Dan Ensing, a retail crime investigator for Dominick’s, said “It doesn’t matter how many boosters that we catch; they’re still gonna be out there if we can’t target and shut down the locations that purchase this merchandise.”

“Operation Whoville” was a joint effort of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office, countywide law enforcement agencies, retail security forces, and even Homeland Security investigators.

In one case, items were stolen in Orland Park, taken to Villa Park, shipped to Miami and then to South America — an example of how sophisticated these operations can be.

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