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5 Things You Didn't Know About Shoplifting

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

You might be surprised by these little-known facts about shoplifting.

You might be surprised by these little-known facts about shoplifting.

How I Became an Expert on Shoplifting and Loss Prevention

Before running a full-service entertainment company, I had a 16-year career in Retail Loss Prevention, and I served as a manager for half of that period. I worked for four retail giants before leaving the business in 2010.

I am certified in Wicklander-Zulawski Interview and Interrogation Techniques, and these are the gold standard when it comes to obtaining confessions from dishonest retail employees. Since leaving the business, I've kept my ear to the ground and my eyes on the internet for the latest changes in the retail industry and loss prevention.

Now, I’m pleased to share some of what I've learned throughout my 16 years in the industry with you.

The Shoplifter Has No Rules

Think of shoplifting as a game between two sets of people: the shoplifters (of course) and the store security personnel who are sometimes referred to as "loss prevention" or simply "LP." The shoplifters have the advantage in the game for three reasons:

  1. They are unidentified until they steal.
  2. They may use any method (or a combination of methods) to get goods out of a store.
  3. The shoplifter has no rules and only one objective: Don’t get caught.

The Five Rules of Loss Prevention Officers

Unlike shoplifters who have no rules, LP employees must follow five basic guidelines when it comes to apprehending shoplifting suspects. These five rules vary slightly from state-to-state and company-to-company, but they’re based on the same principle. They exist because large chains wish to avoid lawsuits and they place extra restrictions on store personnel to ensure an airtight case when stopping a shoplifter.

1. The Rule of Selection

The LP officer must see a shoplifter select merchandise to ensure that the merchandise belongs to the store.

Why: Suppose a woman purchased a sweater at another store a few minutes before coming into your store to look for a matching pair of pants. The LP officer happens to observe this woman holding up the sweater (with tags clearly visible) against several pairs of pants in your store. Then all of a sudden, she opens her handbag (or shopping bag), places the sweater inside, and exits the store.

Did she steal the sweater? According to the rules, if LP did not personally see the woman select the sweater from a rack in the store, she must NOT be stopped. Sometimes people bring their own merchandise into the stores.

2. The Rule of Concealment

The LP must see the shoplifter conceal merchandise in their pockets, coat, pants, handbag, backpack, or shopping cart (some shoplifters will actually fill a cart with merchandise and walk out of the store).

Why: The LP officer needs to be able to say specifically, "the male subject has placed a Hangover DVD inside the front waistband of his pants."

3. The Rule of Observation

LP must observe the suspected shoplifter to make sure he or she does not get nervous or change his mind and dump the merchandise someplace. An LP officer simply cannot see an item concealed and then go outside and wait for the subject.

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Why: Shoplifters are skittish, nervous types and they often drop merchandise they've concealed. If a Loss Prevention officer stops a suspected shoplifter and they have no merchandise on them, the store cannot make a case against them, and the shoplifter may sue for wrongful detainment.

This is the most crucial rule for store employees and also where the most mistakes happen. No matter how good your store's camera system is, there is virtually no such thing as 100% continuous observation.

4. The Rule of Exit

Exiting the store with merchandise proves to the police and the courts that the shoplifter had no intention of paying for it.

Why: If a security officer were to stop a suspected shoplifter before they reached the cash register, the suspect could claim they were going to go to the register and pay for it. This applies even if it is a concealed item.

5. The Rule of Apprehension

Why: This is a rule for a few reasons. Again, if the shoplifter is outside, it means that he or she passed the cash register with no intention of paying for the products. By apprehending the shoplifter outside the store, this rule ensures that if there is a confrontation between a shoplifter and the store detective, it will not happen inside near happy shoppers.

No store wants to make their shoplifting stops public. It's an ugly side of the shopping experience that no one wants to see. The store also does not want their customers getting hurt in an altercation since some shoplifters will fight or even carry weapons. Though rare, both shoplifters and store security have been killed during shoplifting stops.

A shoplifter trying to conceal an item.

A shoplifter trying to conceal an item.

Five Little-Known Facts About Loss Prevention

  1. If I didn't see it, it didn't happen. There were many times throughout my Loss Prevention career when a store employee would call my office or see me on the sales floor and say, "I just saw someone steal, you'd better go catch him." This cannot be done. Why? In most large chains, the store detective is the only person allowed to make an apprehension (although this is not always the way an apprehension gets played out) and the store detective MUST either see the theft occur, or wait for the suspect to take something else. If the store detective does not see the person steal, the subject MUST be allowed to leave the store freely.
  2. If you steal in the restroom, I am supposed to let you go. If you conceal your item inside the restroom or a stall in the fitting/dressing room, by store policy, you should be able to walk out of the store without fear of being stopped by Loss Prevention. Why? Because LP didn't see concealment of the item. They may guess you have the item on your person, but there is no proof. If a person takes an item into the restrooms and leaves without it, the store detective will do a scan of the stalls and waste baskets to check for tags or empty packages. Even if the detective finds evidence of a theft, he/she MUST not act on it. Remember, if they didn't see it, it didn't happen.
  3. If the shoplifter refuses to come back inside the store with the store detective or chooses to run, the shoplifter will be allowed to leave. Why? Liability. In the old days, a store detective would physically take hold of and cuff a suspected shoplifter or give chase through parking lots and back yards in an attempt to capture the shoplifter. In most stores, this is no longer the case. Stores are concerned that shoplifters or innocent customers could be hurt in a brawl and sue them. That's not something that shareholders need affecting their investments. Ask anyone at Home Depot or Albertson's what happens when you chase after a subject who has stolen from the store.You lose your job. No exceptions. Now this doesn't mean that the shoplifter is home free. The store detective should note how the shoplifter gets away, their car description, license plate, the direction they drive, etc., and immediately call the police.
  4. If you are under 5 or over 70 years of age, LP is not supposed to stop you. This is a rule for many chain stores. The assumption is that at 5 years or younger, you are not responsible for knowing you've committed a crime by taking something. Why would stores want to embarrass a customer by stopping their 3 year old who has stolen a candy bar? They don't want to pursue that kind of loss and most stores won't pursue it. Customers are hard enough to come by. Senior citizens are major shoplifters. Whether they steal because of financial issues, kleptomania, or just because they want to, seniors steal everyday and most of them get away with it. No establishment wishes to detain a senior citizen who may fall ill and have a stroke, heart attack, or seizure after they've been caught stealing. It's a liability. It also doesn't look good in front of customers when a store detective brings in some grandmotherly-looking woman for stealing a bottle of Advil. It's bad for business. This doesn't happen at every store, but more and more, retailers are looking away when it comes to the elderly.
  5. LP will break the rules to catch you. Why? Because they can. It's their word against the shoplifters', and the police and store officials are more likely to believe a store detective before they believe a shoplifting suspect. If a shoplifter steals in the bathroom or the store detective loses sight of them, although the rules say they must NOT stop you, this is hardly the case. Store detectives are notorius risk takers. They are paid to prevent loss in the store and they must justify their paychecks by apprehending shoplifters. Since the rules don't work in LP's favor, they are often bent.
What's in those pockets?

What's in those pockets?

What Happens When You're Caught Stealing From Walmart?

Q: How does Walmart prevent shoplifting? Does Walmart's approach to loss prevention differ from other major stores? What happens to Walmart shoplifters?

A: Walmart is well-known for having a strict policy against shoplifters. In the last few years Walmart has repeatedly adjusted their approach to apprehension, deterrents, and prosecution. The New York Times reported that in 2006 Walmart shifted their approach and only prosecuted shoplifters when their thefts amounted to more than twenty-five dollars. Walmart also gave first-time offenders a choice between agreeing to pay a fee and take an educational course on shoplifting, or being prosecuted for theft. In 2017, the Wall Street Journal reported that Walmart ended that policy because California courts ruled that it was a form of extortion.

Despite their evolving approaches to theft prevention, Walmart LP usually follow the same rules as LP at other stores. Walmart LP will try to discourage thefts from people under age 16 or over age 65. If a sixteen year old gets caught stealing from Walmart they will most likely be asked to return the merchandise and leave the store. If you're under 16, Walmart's LP must release you to a parent or guardian. If your parents can't be reached then LP will call the police to come get you, so keep that in mind.

Can You Get Caught for Shoplifting Days After Leaving the Store?

Q: I shoplifted, almost shoplifted, or almost got caught shoplifting. I've left the store and the parking lot now. Are the police after me?

A: Answering that question would be like asking me if you were going to win the lottery after getting a scratch-off ticket. There is really no way of knowing if you've been captured on video or if the police are after you. I realize that is usually the number one question on the minds of most shoplifters, but my expertise ends when the suspect leaves the store parking lot.

From there, the police are involved and they work with a different set of rules than I did. It's a difficult call. That said, if it’s been over 24 hours since the incident and you still haven’t been contacted by police, chances are you’re safe.

In fact, for most cases of shoplifting, you've got to quit worrying about the cops showing up at your house. Misdemeanor shoplifting is usually dealt with on the premises. I used the word "usually," because there are occasions where the cops will go to your house after you've shoplifted.

Usually those instances are restricted to felony shoplifting, where a store has been hit several times by the same person (or group) and has been investigated by the police. I've also seen the police go to the doors of dishonest employees who have been embezzling merchandise from their employers in huge amounts.

What Happens If You Get Caught Shoplifting on Camera?

Q: If LP claims to have a tape of me shoplifting, are they obligated to show me the tape?

A: The store is under no obligation to show you the tape. Sometimes the cops ask to see it and they are shown a video (if one exists). If you want to see the tape, get yourself a defense lawyer. He or she may be able to gain access to it, but that's usually only if your case is going to trial.

Does LP Ever Break the Rules?

Q: How does LP ever catch anyone? With all of these rules it looks like the LP officer has no way of catching a shoplifter who knows what they are doing. Seems like they have no choice but to lie.

A: Unfortunately that’s pretty much the way it is. The job is 50% lies on the part of the store detective. There are so many gray areas that you pretty much have to. There is an official report of what gets filed and the story of what actually occurred. At my last job, we had to call our boss every time we had a shoplifting arrest in excess of $100. After reading him the report, he would always ask, "Ok, now what really happened?"

LP May Have Abused Me. What Next?

Q: I think I may have been mistreated when I was detained for shoplifting. What do I do?

A: I can't really comment on specific cases, as I wasn't there to witness your apprehension or processing. If you have a serious complaint against a Loss Prevention Department, I suggest you immediately send a registered letter to their main headquarters, outlining dates, times, threats made to you, and any other details.

Any big retailer would not want an individual who abuses their power working for them and they will likely investigate. If you believe you were treated especially poorly (i.e. threatened physically or physically hurt), you could also send a copy of your letter to a couple of local TV stations and request an interview to talk about your alleged mistreatment.

Store alarm systems may trigger when unpurchased merchandise goes through the gates.

Store alarm systems may trigger when unpurchased merchandise goes through the gates.

What Happens If I Make the Alarms Go Off?

Q: What happens if I trigger a store's alarm system?

A: The EAS towers are not a means to catch shoplifters. They are intended to deter them. If someone from the store does respond to the alarm going off, they are usually only allowed to ask you if you "forgot to pay for something." They cannot threaten to call the police. For what? There is no evidence.

I worked for a supermarket chain where the EAS alarms would go off in the rain, during a storm, or when the wind picked up. Sometimes these machines are way too sensitive. I personally think they're a huge waste of money. They cannot be used in court against you.

Most employees at places with EAS door alarms view them as an annoyance instead of an asset. The only real purpose they serve is they look intimidating at the door and discourage amateur (but not professional) shoplifting.

I Was Accused of Shoplifting Even Though I'm Innocent. Should I Sign Anything?

Q: What do I do if I am accused of shoplifting when I did not shoplift? What if I accidentally took an item out of a store that I didn’t pay for and then was taken down by LP?

A: Store detectives are heartless, ruthless bastards and their only concern is the apprehension. How do I know this? In my younger days, I was one of those heartless, ruthless bastards. I have since matured and realized that people make mistakes.

If you did not steal, but you made a mistake and accidentally brought store merchandise outside, stay calm, go with the detective, and demand to speak with the police immediately. DO NOT SIGN ANYTHING! I don't care what bullshit the detective makes up, DO NOT SIGN ANYTHING IF YOU ARE INNOCENT!

Talk to the police and ask them to question the detective. I have been questioned many times in the past concerning shoplifter arrests when the police show up. A good cop will do just that. If not, I suggest that you speak with an attorney.

If LP takes down your personal info, it might just be a scare tactic.

If LP takes down your personal info, it might just be a scare tactic.

On Scare Tactics

Q: The LP took my license number, wrote down my license plate, or took some other kind of personal information from me. Will they use it to send the police after me?

A: Often these kinds of things are just scare tactics to keep theft from happening again. If it’s been over 24 hours since you’ve left the store, you’re probably okay.

I'm a Drug Addict. Will I Get Let Off Easy?

Q: Will a store go easy on me because I’m a drug addict?

A: I've prosecuted more drug users than regular kleptomaniacs or light shoplifters. I cannot see a store going easy on you because of your addiction. Stores lose millions to drug-addicted shoplifters. They are also the most dangerous to deal with. Every fist fight I've had in my career, (with the exception of one) was due to someone stealing large amounts of merchandise for drugs. Get some help and good luck.

On Burning the Shoplifter and Dealing With a Tough Economy

Q: I just left Lowe's without the items I was going to shoplift. The alarm went off on one item so I went back and gave the item back saying I didn’t want to get the item and that I was sorry. I was hoping to leave the store. The teller checked my items against the receipt and called the people inside the store to ask if they’d seen me. I said my kids and I had to head to the bathroom and we left. I know I was stupid to do this, but times are hard. Will anything happen?

A: You'll be ok. Lowe’s is highly proactive in their fight against shoplifting. Their employees are trained to be on the lookout for theft and to attempt to deter it.

For example, if you stick a $12 hammer inside your coat pocket and you're seen by a loss prevention associate or another employee, you will all of a sudden be surrounded by employees asking if you need assistance. This is called "burning the shoplifter.” It's an attempt to get you to return the item and leave. (At least that's the way Lowes used to be. It's been a while since I've been in touch with anyone from their LP department.)

If you were not stopped with the merchandise outside of the store, you are in the clear. You came back on your own, and no matter what excuse you gave, the store did not lose any merchandise, which is all they really care about. And you are correct. Times are indeed difficult, but when times are tough and the economy is not good, most stores are even more vigilant when it comes to shoplifters.

I'm not judging your actions, but I can personally assure you that cops aren't the nicest people to deal with when you've been caught shoplifting. Please, don't take that kind of risk—especially when you're shopping with your kids.

My Friend Stole, but I Didn't. Could I Get in Trouble?

Q: I was with my friend somewhere and they stole something, but I didn’t. Could I get in trouble?

A: I had that happen to me when I was a teenager. A friend and I were at the mall and when we left, he pulled a brand new wallet out of his jacket. I was pretty mad.

No, you're in the clear. Being with someone when they shoplift is not a crime, unless you take an active part in the shoplifting (as a lookout, or helping to conceal the merchandise). Some stores (like Kmart for example) will not take an accomplice, unless they physically touch the merchandise. Still, you probably don't want to be present when your friend gets busted.

Shoe tags in an empty box right in front of a camera—oops.

Shoe tags in an empty box right in front of a camera—oops.

On Stealing Expensive Things as a Teenager

Q: I’m a teenager and I lift a lot from Nordstroms. I did something stupid recently, I left Ugg tags in an empty box right in front of a camera. I really like the store and I want to go back, but I’m nervous about getting caught. What should I do?

A: If I worked LP at Nordstrom and I found an empty Uggs box and tags, you'd better believe I would be reviewing any video I had to see who took them. Lots of teens have expensive tastes these days, but shoplifting high dollar items is a guarantee that you will eventually get caught.

Nordstrom is very conscious of its highly priced items and watches them closely. You may have gotten lucky that day, but that doesn't mean they don't know who you are.

Personally, I wouldn't go back. I wouldn't be worried about getting arrested for a previous theft, (which LP cannot do), but I wouldn't be comfortable with a small roomful of coffee-breathed LP checking out my every move. I can virtually guarantee you won't be that lucky with such an expensive item again. Nordstrom will prosecute and the police will cuff you and put you in a cell. Don't screw up your life. You're too young for this crap.

On Stealing Addiction and Stealing From the Same Store

Q: I have a problem with stealing. I will literally spend a whole day stealing, and go from drugstore to drugstore to take a bunch of stuff. Usually I do this about three times a month. So far, I haven't been caught or even been close to being caught. Do you think they just might be waiting for me to come in again to catch me?

A: You're setting yourself up for jail. If you get caught, you're going to spend an embarrassing 20 minutes in a loss prevention office, go to jail, or both.

There are many circumstances in which a LP can't apprehend a shoplifter at any given time. It may be they didn't see it, they were busy doing something (or watching someone else) or perhaps they don't have enough evidence on you at the time. If I'm the LP and I have to "let you walk out" with my merchandise for one reason, or another, I'm going to wait for you to come back, which you will because you've gotten away with it before. When you come back, I'm calling the police.

Each time you shoplift and get away with it, you dramatically increase the odds of getting caught next time. Your window is closing. Be careful.

On Being Threatened With Prosecution on Witness Statements

Q: I am being threatened with prosecution even though the store has no proof of me lifting (no items recovered, video surveillance, etc.). They say they have statements from employees that they can use against me. Could this case be real, or are they just trying to intimidate me?

A: First of all, keep in mind that I'm not an attorney. According to what I know, you can be charged with a crime on a statement (or statements) from a witness. Even with the absence of cameras—since many stores still are not equipped with them— I've been in situations where I was returning to my store from lunch (or a bathroom visit) and have seen a shoplifting take place and had to pursue it without the use of cameras. It's also what stores did "back in the day" before the invention of surveillance cameras.

Your second question doesn't come down to a credibility issue, as much as what evidence the store has against you. There may be video. You're not 100% sure. You also don't know if there are one or more witnesses to your theft. The proof of burden is on the store. They have to prove your guilt to the judge. Unfortunately, you'll have to defend yourself. Just like any other court case (if it comes to that) the person with the better story wins. I suggest you contact an attorney, discuss this with him or her, and discover your options. Good luck!

Got Any More Questions?

Hopefully this article has enhanced your knowledge of shoplifting, common prevention practices, and its potential consequences. Feel free to leave questions or observations in the comments section.

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.

© 2008 Joseph Addams

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