By Rick Sallinger

DENVER (AP) – It is a practice that has come back to bite home improvement stores to the tunes of tens of thousands of dollars.

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Even if you don’t have a receipt, items from Home Depot and Lowes can be returned in exchange for in-store credits.

Now 25 people have been charged in a Denver Grand Jury indictment with violating Colorado’s organized crime Control Act in a scheme that is said to have involved selling the cards with the store credits on them. Items brought in for $35,000 in credits.

(credit: CBS)

Denver District Attorney Beth McCann spoke of the indictment which also includes charges of money laundering, theft, and violation of bail bond conditions,

“They never spent the money in the first place so it is stealing in a creative way, I guess,” McCann said.

The in-store credits were given out on cards. Investigators found they were then taken to one of two unmarked Gift Card Shops where they were redeemable  for 70% of their value.

Prosecutors claim reputed gang member Christopher Rodriquez, headed the operation said to involve bailing people out of jail then directing them to steal. Homeless people were also believed to be recruited.

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Christopher Rodriguez (credit: Denver DA)

The indictment claims the goods were often brought a home in southwest Denver where the thieves were paid given housing and paid in cash and drugs. Three years ago CBS 4 investigator Rick Sallinger reported on a similar operation involving different people and a card buying store. An undercover producer went in to show how easy it was to sell the cards.

“$35 bucks, how much do I get back? 71% that would be $24.”

When CBS 4 went to the Gift Card store mentioned as one of two where today’s indictment claims the cards were cashed. . No one was available to speak with us, but there was a sign that said they are NOT buying  Home Depot and Lowes cards for in-store credit.

The scheme is not new. In 2014 Sallinger reported on a similar operation involving different people, but the same stores as well as others.

Right now, 18 of the 25 indicted are in custody.

Investigators have tied Rodriguez to the crimes through a GPD bracelet he was wearing which showed him at the stores at the same time as the thefts.

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CBS4’s Rick Sallinger is a Peabody award winning reporter who has been with the station more than two decades doing hard news and investigative reporting. Follow him on Twitter @ricksallinger.