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5 Things Shoplifters Don't Know About Retail Loss Prevention

I spent 16 years working in retail Loss Prevention, and I am Wicklander-Zulawski-certified to interview dishonest retail employees.

5 More Facts About Shoplifting

5 More Facts About Shoplifting

More of Your Shoplifting Questions Answered

Years after publishing an article on little-known facts about shoplifting, I still receive several questions each day. As a former retail loss prevention professional, I am happy to help anyone I can. Below are five realities of shoplifting you may not have known about.

  1. Loss prevention (LP) may have you dump the item rather than apprehend you.
  2. You're being profiled whether you know it or not.
  3. The decision to call the police has already been made.
  4. LP is prohibited from touching you or running after you.
  5. You'll likely pay a civil fine and be entered into a database.

Please keep in mind that I am not an attorney and I do not provide legal advice. I also do not answer "how to shoplift" questions. Shoplifting is a crime, costing hundreds of millions of dollars yearly. I have no respect for shoplifters, but at the same time, who am I to judge their actions?

Shoplifters work 7 days per week.

Shoplifters work 7 days per week.

1. Loss prevention (LP) may have you dump the item rather than apprehend you.

That's right—if loss prevention sees you shoplift, they may try to get you to dump the item instead of immediately apprehending you.

Why? There are several reasons. The item may be small or inexpensive enough to justify not spending the time necessary to recover it and process the paperwork. Loss prevention would also have to pull an employee away from their job to act as a witness in the LP office. It could take anywhere from 10–30 minutes for an adult apprehension with no police involvement. Add 30–60 minutes to that if police are called or if the shoplifter is a juvenile. The needs of the business come first in retail. Sometimes letting an item walk out the door is the best solution.

How does LP get you to drop concealed merchandise?

If it were me, I might pick up the intercom and, using my best official-sounding voice, say, "Security, to the makeup department . . . Code 4, thank you!" That may not mean anything to the honest shopper, but if you're standing in the makeup department and you've just concealed a lipstick in your jacket, you're going to know that you've been caught. Nine times out of 10, you're going to dump it and walk away.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, Code 4 doesn't mean anything. But it sure sounds official, doesn't it?

2. You're being profiled whether you know it or not.

How? A clean-cut, mid-40s male wearing a $600 suit enters the store at the same time as a female teenager with a huge pocketbook and a baggy coat. The male walks to the electronics department and the teenager goes to the jewelry and accessories department. Both departments are high theft areas. Who do you watch? The answer is pretty obvious.

Will you be profiled based on your appearance while shopping?

Absolutely. Loss prevention will judge you by the way you look and will watch you accordingly. You won't know this and it won't be written in any company LP rule book, but it's routine in the industry. The LP detective will watch the female teenager for an hour until she decides what she wants and proceeds to the cash register to pay for it. The guy in the expensive suit places 3 DVD players and a flat-screen TV inside a shopping cart and walks out the front doors without paying for them while no one even glances at him.

My first year in loss prevention is where I learned many valuable lessons about profiling. I was working in a store with another young detective when we noticed a beautiful woman come into the store. She was dressed in a tight halter top, a much-too-short miniskirt, and very high heels. The store was slow, and we were young and bored. Who did we watch?

This woman took her time shopping, reaching high to retrieve items on top shelves and bending over to get a better look at items on bottom shelves. My partner and I didn't miss a move she made. After 30 minutes or so, she suddenly abandoned her shopping cart in an aisle and began walking toward the front door. This didn't make sense. Why was she leaving the cart full of items she obviously wished to purchase? The answer became clear when we saw her meet up with a scruffy-looking guy at the front of the store who was walking very fast, carrying two overstuffed knapsacks toward the exits.

She was obviously the sexy decoy, and he was the thief who had taken who knows what from our store while we were busy gawking at the woman. They were in their car driving out of the parking lot before we figured out what was going on.

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Loss prevention will judge you by the way you look and will watch you accordingly.

Loss prevention will judge you by the way you look and will watch you accordingly.

3. The decision to call the police has already been made.

Why? "My kid is sick!" "I stole because I lost my job and my husband left me!" "I'm about to get evicted!" "My car was just repossessed and I don't have any money." Every loss prevention detective on this earth has heard these (and many other) excuses a million times. In fact, they've heard them so many times, they've become immune to them.

When LP makes an apprehension, they don't care what your reason for stealing was. They score a notch on their belt for recovering merchandise and justify their paychecks at the same time. They're not going to let you go. They can't let you go. And they also have no say over whether or not you'll be arrested. That decision has already been made for them by the store, and there's nothing you can do about it.

The Minimum Dollar Amount

Years ago, LP was pretty much left to make the decision on whether or not to call the police. Things like dollar amount, the cooperation of the shoplifter, and accuracy of the information provided all contributed to the decision on whether or not you'd be talking a ride downtown. That's not the case anymore.

Over the past several years, stores have found it necessary to impose a minimum dollar amount when it comes to the policy for prosecuting shoplifters. That way, the store cannot be accused of being prejudicial when it comes to prosecuting shoplifters. If everyone who steals at least $20 worth of merchandise gets arrested, there are no cries of racism or sexism. Everyone is equal, no matter what it is they've stolen. Now, rich or poor, male or female, black, white, or another ethnicity, you're going to jail if you've stolen the minimum dollar amount.

The only problem with this system is that sometimes the minimum amount is too low. I've worked in stores where the minimum was between $10–$20. Why tie up a cop for 2 hours to arrest a kid with $10 worth of baseball cards? Cops have more important things to deal with.

Handbags are always a popular place to conceal merchandise.

Handbags are always a popular place to conceal merchandise.

4. LP is prohibited from touching you or running after you.

If you are stopped for shoplifting, loss prevention is not allowed to run after you or physically touch you.

Why? Liability. If you run away from a loss prevention detective when he/she stops you, the detective cannot pursue you. In fact, depending on which store they work for, LP is not allowed to step off the sidewalk to stop you. I've seen more than one good LP get himself fired for either going out of bounds off the sidewalk or chasing someone who decided to run when he left the exit.

Running after a shoplifter is dangerous. You or the shoplifter could be struck and killed by an automobile. Innocent shoppers may be knocked down and seriously injured, which not only casts a bad light on their shopping experience but may force the store to pay out money to the injured party. This scenario can be avoided by not chasing a shoplifter.

Shoplifters are unpredictable. Some carry weapons. Some are drug addicted. Some don't care whether you (the LP) lives or dies. For these reasons, LP is prohibited from getting into a physical altercation with the shoplifter. If the shoplifter refuses to return to the store with LP, threatens physical violence, or pulls a weapon, the LP is required to remove themselves from the situation immediately and let the shoplifter walk (or run) away.

5. You'll likely pay a civil fine and be entered into a database.

Even if you don't get arrested, you'll probably still have to pay a civil fine, and your personal information will be entered into a retail theft database.

Why? You couldn't resist temptation; when walking past the bargain DVD bin, you decided to swipe Steve Martin and John Candy's hit 1987 movie, Planes, Trains & Automobiles. It's only $5.99, but you can't justify blowing $6 on a movie you've seen before. You look around and quickly stick the DVD in your jacket pocket. When you go outside, you realize that you won't be watching a comedy this evening. Maybe a crime drama is more your speed. You've been busted.

How much is the fine?

Okay, so you've stolen a $6 DVD. It's no big deal. You're not going to have a criminal record and the LP told you that if you sign a couple of forms, you can be home by lunchtime. Is that it?

Not quite. There are some after-effects of shoplifting, even if you're not arrested. Depending on which state you're in and what store you've decided to steal from. You may be required to pay a civil fine ranging from $100–$1000.

Most US states have given stores the right to recoup reasonable costs from those who have caused a loss in their stores. You'll receive a letter from a law office demanding you pay a fee within 30 days, or you'll be executed at sunrise. Well, not quite, but if you don't pay the fee, these vultures will make your life miserable until you do. There is usually a 50/50 split of the money between the store and the collection firm. The money is all profit on the store's end.

I've read online recently, where some attorneys are taking on the task of fighting civil demand fines. Attorney fees are guaranteed to be less expensive than paying the fine, so if you can find an attorney willing to fight, it may be worth it.

Big Brother is tracking you, too.

Months and years after you've almost forgotten you've ever stolen anything, your memory will live on—if the chain you stole from contributes information to a shoplifting criminal database. Systems such as APIS and Esteem are keeping your social security number, name, address, what you've stolen, and the outcome of your case (whether you've been arrested or not) safe and sound (or are they?) inside their vast servers, which they share with other department stores.

These systems claim to be used for data research and statistics, but they collect enough information to be used against you. Whether or not this information is safe and secure and not being utilized or sold elsewhere is anyone's guess, but give a $15 per hour LP access to data like that and you're asking for trouble.

Some chain stores contribute information to shoplifting criminal databases, such as APIS and Esteem.

Some chain stores contribute information to shoplifting criminal databases, such as APIS and Esteem.

Have Another Question About Shoplifting? Ask Away!

Shoplifters are a necessary evil. The loss prevention industry employs hundreds of thousands of people around the world who watch and protect our merchandise and manufacture equipment designed to prevent the loss of goods sold in our stores. If prostitution is the world's oldest profession, shoplifting must be at least third or fourth on the list. People have been stealing since time began and will continue to do so long after you and I have departed. Today, it's one of the most frequently committed crimes by both adults and youth.

I want to thank everyone who read my past article, 5 Things You Didn't Know About Shoplifting. Years later, that article has snowballed into a giant question-and-answer article. Apparently, I haven't even scraped the surface when it comes to answering your shoplifting questions. I still receive several each day, and I am happy to answer as many as I can. Feel free to continue to ask questions about shoplifting and the apprehension process.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2012 Joseph Addams

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