Laundered money

A bright orange bottle of detergent has become the underworld equivalent of prison cigarettes.

The Daily has a story which would be unbelievable, were it not accompanied by pictures backing it up. Tide-brand laundry detergent has become a makeshift currency in the criminal underworld.

M.L. Nestel reports:

One Tide taker in West St. Paul, Minn., made off with $25,000 in the product over 15 months before he was busted last year...

Tide has become a form of currency on the streets. The retail price is steadily high — roughly $10 to $20 a bottle — and it’s a staple in households across socioeconomic classes.

Tide can go for $5 to $10 a bottle on the black market, authorities say. Enterprising laundry soap peddlers even resell bottles to stores.

"There’s no serial numbers and it’s impossible to track,” said Detective Larry Patterson of the Somerset, Ky., Police Department, where authorities have seen a huge spike in Tide theft. “It’s the item to steal"...

"We sent in an informant to buy drugs. The dealer said, 'I don’t have drugs, but I could sell you 15 bottles of Tide,' " [Detective Harrison] Sprague told The Daily. "Upstairs in the drug dealer’s bedroom was about 14 bottles of Tide laundry soap. We think [users] are trading it for drugs."

Police in Gresham, Ore., said most Tide theft is perpetrated by "users feeding their habit."

"They’ll do it right in front of a cop car — buying heroin or methamphetamine with Tide," said Detective Rick Blake of the Gresham Police Department. "We would see people walking down the road with six, seven bottles of Tide. They were so blatant about it."

Tide does appear to meet all the requirements for a heavily traded commodity. Crucially, one bottle of it is identical to any other, a quality economists call "fungibility", putting it in the same class as oil, precious metals, or currency itself. If someone lends me a bottle of Tide, I don't have to return the same one to them when my debt is called in – in fact, because there are no serial numbers, it would be impossible for them to tell even if I did.

Based on what Detectives Patterson and Sprague say, it sounds like Tide is also a highly liquid commodity, frequently traded, which will allow a natural, and relatively stable, value to emerge for it. If it is going to be used as a currency replacement, however, the price spread will need to narrow from the $5 it stands at now – although the fact that dealers are storing large quantities suggests that a healthy arbitrage market is growing up around the detergent, which should prevent too much price volatility and guard against supply shocks.

There will be some interesting effects of the unique situtation, however. If thieves are able to resell the detergent to stores, that suggests that a price floor has been put on the market (assuming these stores are buying believing they are part of legitimate trade, and not a black market). There is already a price ceiling as well, since if the black market price of Tide gets too high, it can just be bought legally at the recommended retail price.

There are downsides to using bottles of soap as an underworld currency, though. The price of an average dose of crystal meth is $20 in much of the US, about two to four bottles of Tide – or 14 kilos of the stuff. A credit card might be easier to track, but it's also considerably lighter.

Bottles of Tide on a store shelf, with a "street value" of $20-40. Credit: Getty

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Work with us: Wellcome Scholarship at the New Statesman

Be one of our 2016 science interns.

Britain needs more great science writers – particularly from backgrounds which have been traditionally under-represented in the media.

To address this, the New Statesman and Wellcome Trust, in partnership with Creative Access, have come together to offer annual placements to student or graduates from an ethnic minority background*.

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