A CTV News investigation revealed that shoplifting schemes, which have become such a problem in some neighbourhoods of Metro Vancouver and Canada that they're outpacing drug trafficking, are also targeting vulnerable residents of the region.

Shoplifting is a multibillion-dollar industry in Canada, according to investigators, and it's difficult for authorities to control.

Businesses are being targeted in large-scale retail scams, often based around an individual buyer – called a "fence" – who uses a predatory method to convince others to do the stealing for them.

Fences look for vulnerable residents, often drug addicts, and pay them 10 cents on the dollar for items they steal from local stores. Police call it "predatory fencing."

In some cases they will even buy drugs for their hired thieves, as long as it keeps them stealing, Vancouver police told CTV's St. John Alexander.

Officials estimate that approximately $50,000 worth of stolen goods is exchanged on a single block of East Hastings Street every day. The items range from razor blades to designer suits, as captured on hidden CTV News cameras.

The goods are carefully inspected by buyers then resold on the black market, often out of condos or basement suites, or listed online on sites like Craigslist and eBay. Other crooks run websites, promising to steal anything a customer orders, police said.

Some of the stolen items are shipped to China, where Canadian merchandise gets top dollar.

An investigation last fall uncovered thousands of tubs of baby formula stolen from London Drugs and Shoppers Drug Mart. Each of the tubs of formula retails for about $33 in the Lower Mainland, but would fetch a thief only about $12 on the streets of the Downtown Eastside, Det. Const. Doug Fell said at the time. However, the tubs could be sold for as much as $300 in Asia, where they were about to be shipped before a police raid.

The Vancouver Police Department has assigned three officers specifically to bringing down predatory fencing operations, and the team has busted enormous operations.

The VPD's team has recovered more than $2.1 million in stolen property so far, and closed or suspended dozens of businesses. They've conducted 26 search warrants and investigated 18 mobile fencing operations.

But officials admit there will always be thieves, so they're focused on taking down the fences. Their hope is if there are no fences around to pay the thieves, shoplifting rates will decrease.

Tuesday on CTV News at Six: In Part Two of his investigation, St. John Alexander goes behind the scenes at shoplifting command centres and meets undercover shoppers to find out how technology and techniques are helping big stores catch thieves.