5 Things You Didn't Know About Shoplifting
How I Know What I Know
Before running a full-service entertainment company, I had a 16-year career in Retail Loss Prevention (half of those as manager). I worked for four retail giants before leaving the business in 2010.
I am certified in Wicklander-Zulawski Interview and Interrogation Techniques, (the gold standard, used mainly for obtaining confessions from dishonest retail employees) and since leaving the business, I've kept my ear to the ground and my eyes to the internet for the latest changes in the retail industry and loss prevention.
Now, I’m pleased to share some of what I learned in my 16 years in the industry with you.
Important: This article is for shoplifting questions only. I don't provide info on how to steal. I have zero sympathy for shoplifters. There are a lot easier, safer and legal ways to make a living. There are plenty of internet forums available that dedicate themselves to "the art of shoplifting,” but this isn't one of them.
Have You Ever Been Caught Shoplifting?
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:
- They are unidentified until they steal.
- They may use any method (or a combination of methods) to get goods out of a store.
- The shoplifter has no rules and only one objective: Don’t get caught.
Shoplifting in Progress
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 basically the same principle. They exist because large chains wish to avoid lawsuits and place extra restrictions on personnel to ensure an airtight case when stopping a shoplifter.
#1: The Rule of Selection
Loss prevention must see the item selected from their store.
The LP officer must see the shoplifter select the merchandise to make sure the merchandise belongs to the store.
Why: Suppose a woman purchased a sweater at another store a few minutes before and came into your store looking for a matching pair of pants? The LP 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? If LP did not personally see the woman select the sweater from a rack in the store, she must NOT be stopped. (According to the rules, anyway! More on this below.) Sometimes people bring their own merchandise into the stores with them
#2: The Rule of Concealment
LP must see the shoplifter conceal the merchandise.
The LP must see the shoplifter conceal the merchandise in their pockets, coat, or pants, inside a handbag or backpack, or simply inside the shopping cart (some shoplifters 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 maintain continuous observation of the shoplifter.
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.
Why: Shoplifters are skittish, nervous types and 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
LP must watch the shoplifter pass the point of purchase.
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
LP must apprehend the shoplifter outside of the store.
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.
Demonstration of Professional Theft
5 Little-Known Facts About Loss Prevention
#1: If I Didn't See It, It Didn't Happen
There have been countless times in my loss prevention career when a store employee has called my office or seen me on the sales floor and said, "I just saw someone steal! You better go catch him." This cannot be done. It’s not that easy.
In most large retail chains, the store detective is the only person allowed to make an apprehension (although this is not always the way it plays out). Therefore, the store detective must be the one to either see the theft occur, or wait for the suspect to take something else after being tipped off by someone 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 or dressing room, by store policy, you should be able to walk out of the store without fear of being stopped by Loss Prevention. If the restrooms have a sign saying, “No Store Merchandise Beyond This Point,” however, the rules are a little different.
Since you concealed the item while you were in the restroom, there is no way they could have seen it happen. They may guess you have the item on your person, but there is no visual proof.
Many times if a person takes an item into the restrooms and leaves without it, the store detective will do a scan of the stalls and wastebaskets checking for tags or empty packages. Even if the detective finds evidence of theft, he or 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 or Chooses to Run, They Will Be Allowed to Leave.
It all comes down to 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 backyards to try to catch 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 Albertsons what happens when you chase a subject from the store. You lose your job. No exceptions.
Now, this isn't saying that the shoplifter is home free. In that case, the store detective should note how the shoplifter gets away. If it’s in a car, that means taking down the car description, license plate number, direction, etc. After that, they’ll 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 chains. The assumption is that at five 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 toddler who has stolen a candy bar? They don't, and most won't. Customers are hard enough to come by.
Senior citizens are major shoplifters. Whether they’re motivated by financial, psychological, or thrill-seeking reasons, seniors are stealing each and every day. Most of them are getting away with it.
It’s liability again. No store wishes to detain a senior citizen who may fall ill or have a stroke, heart attack, or seizure after they've been caught stealing. 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 just bad for business. This doesn't happen at every store, but more and more, retailers are looking away while granny is helping herself to merchandise.
#5: Despite All This, LP Will Break the Rules to Catch You
Because they can. It's LP’s word against the shoplifters, and the police and store officials will believe a store detective before they believe a shoplifting suspect. Although the rules say they must not stop you if you steal in the bathroom or if they lose sight of you, they often do. Store detectives are notorious risk takers. They are paid for their ability to fight loss in the store and must justify their paychecks by apprehending shoplifters. Since the rules are not in their favor, these rules are often bent.
Shoplifting FAQ from the Comments
I’ve answered a ton of shoplifting questions in the comments section. Here are some of the most frequently asked ones that might help you out.
Are the Police After Me?
I shoplifted, almost shoplifted, or almost got caught shoplifting. I've left the store and the parking lot now. Are the police after me?
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 the often 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 from 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 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 say usually, because there are those occasions where the cops will go to your house after shoplifting.
Usually those 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 door of dishonest employees who have been embezzling from their employer in huge amounts.
Does LP Ever Break the Rules?
How does LP ever catch anyone? With all of these rules it looks like the LP officer has no way of catching a shoplifter that knows what they are doing. Seems like they have no choice but to lie.
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?
I think I may have been mistreated when I was detained for shoplifting. What do I do?
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, requesting an interview to talk about your alleged mistreatment.
What Happens If the Alarms Go Off on Me?
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?
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?
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 realize 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 (as always) speak with an attorney.
On Scare Tactics
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?
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?
Will a store go easy on me because I’m a drug addict?
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
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?
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 chance it. Especially with the kids.
Can I See the Video Tape?
Is the LP obligated to show me the tape they say they have of me shoplifting?
The store is under no obligation to show you the tape. Sometimes the cops ask to see it and they are shown video (if any 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.
My Friend Stole but I Didn't. Could I Get in Trouble?
I was with my friend somewhere and they stole something but I didn’t. Could I get in trouble?
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, it's no place that you want to be when your friend gets busted.
On Stealing Expensive Things as a Teenager
I’m a teenager and I lift a lot from Nordstroms. I did something stupid recently when 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?
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 shoplifting, (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
I have a problem with stealing. I will literally spend a whole day and go from drugstore to drugstore and just take a bunch of stuff. Usually this is 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?
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 why an 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 Witnesses Statements
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?
First of all, keep in mind that I'm not an attorney. But according to what I know, yes. You can be charged with a crime on a statement (or statements) from a witness(es). Even in the absence of cameras. (As 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 and discuss this with him or her and discover your options. Good luck!