shoplifting 101
by wes modes


I've had a long career as a shoplifter, so it seemed ironic that I'd find myself in a department store seeking out a store detective. I stole my first candy bar when I was nine and I loved it. It was exciting and thrilling and it was gleefully wrong. Now I wanted to find out more about the people who were trying to stop me.

My step-brothers introduced me to shoplifting. They'd steal candy bars and Playboys just to see if they could. They taught me that the more cavalier your theft, the harder to detect. I was better at it than they were. I never got caught, but they busted my brothers numerous times. While they graduated to petty theft and larceny, I stuck with the small stuff now and again, eventually losing the habit.

Life sometimes turns tables. I was a clerk at Circle-K when I was in college. It was my job to throw myself between shoplifters and the store's precious supply of beer and ho-hos. I worked the graveyard shift and made minimum wage. I got to eat all the burritos and drink all the slushies I wanted. The most common item to walk was beer. Kids and old men would stroll in and saunter up to the beer case. They'd all too casually grab a 12-pack and sidle along the back of the store toward the door. I'd have to make a move to intercept the shoplifter before they hit the parking lot. At $3.50 an hour I was putting my life in danger to protect cases of Bud Light.

I didn't call it loss prevention. I called it job security. If too much merchandise walked out of the store, I'd get fired. But in bigger stores, clerks aren't the only ones protecting the Company interest. Store detectives are there to keep us honest.

From the secrecy surrounding retail security officers, you'd think they were Secret Service. The fate of the free (retail) world is in their hands. The manager of Kroger wanted to clear it through his regional manager before I could talk to anyone. The regional manager said, "Absolutely not. We don't do that sort of thing. We won't do that sort of thing. It's not our policy." However, tracking a store detective down in the store and talking to them wasn't all that difficult.

I asked for the security officer in one of the big department stores. The salesperson, or associate in retail parlance, looked at me suspiciously, but complied. She spoke into the paging system, "Two one four, to two two oh four."

Jan met me at customer service. She immediately wanted to see my credentials. I had none. I told her to pick-up a copy of BC where I should be in the contributor's box. I didn't have the foresight to bring one myself. But we got to talking.

Part of the mystery of store dicks is their anonymity. They could be anyone. They could be anywhere. Jan dressed in a beat-up denim jacket and Levi's. Very casual. She had short blond hair and was young. She looked just out of college. She had no name badge, no walkie-talkie, no uniform, no handcuffs. There was nothing about her that suggested store employee, let alone cop. "One hundred percent of my job is playing secret agent," Jan said. "You need to mingle with the customers."

Holding Down the Store

I'd heard it called Loss Control. "We call it Loss Prevention," Jan said. "I deal with anything that has to do with the store's loss. Shoplifters, bad returns, training of associates on the registers, correct pricing, label switchers. And we watch employees, as well."

We're not talking a few bucks here, a tennis shoe that turns up missing at inventory time, an occasional toaster-oven that takes a walk. We're talking big bucks. When I talked with Jan, I spotted a list of the top shortages by department. In a year, one department featuring popular college-wear lost over $14,000 dollars in inventory.

Typical methods of loss control and tools of the trade include two-way mirrors, video cameras (hidden and exposed), standard mirrors in strategic locations, magnetic tags, dye tags, and store detectives. Smaller stores will usually rely on simpler methods such as magnetic and dye tags on particularly expensive items. Larger stores may employ retail security officers as well as surveillance equipment.

"It is very intriguing to watch someone steal," Jan said. "Especially when they think they are very sly, and very good at what they do. You watch them the whole way. They never even know they are being watched."

Hidden surveillance can sometimes have unexpected entertainment value. Jan said, "A woman was trying to steal a phone from electronics. She put on gloves and took the item out of the box and put it in her purse. Then she picked up a towel and wiped the box with spray cleaner. She wanted to make sure that her fingerprints wouldn't be on the phone and especially on the box that she left on the shelf. The cameras caught the whole thing." I can imagine the security officers laughing their asses off.

Everyone's Doing It

It took a few tries before I could track down Rob. But one of the salespeople had confided his name, and I asked for him directly. Like Jan, he was security at a big department store. "I can't really answer any questions. I can have my store manager get back to you." Rob said.

He dressed casually. He looked like a college guy, maybe a grad student. He had on a sweater and jeans and beat up tennis shoes. "Oh well," Rob said, "come back to my office. I probably shouldn't be talking to you at all."

His office was at the back of the store through a store room and a long hall. It was a white windowless space barely big enough for his desk. There was a sign on the wall that said, "Shoplifting Hurts Everyone." It featured an illustration of a shifty-eyed shoplifter, stashing a Walkman.

I asked Rob who shoplifts. "Most of the people we catch here are college students," he said, gesturing in the direction of IU, "But there are all types of people who steal. Young people, old people, white, black. It doesn't matter."

Jan said the same thing, "There is no stereotypical shoplifter. It can be anyone."

I expected to uncover some prejudice toward poor or young people, maybe people of color, but both Rob and Jan kept returning to this point. Rob said, "We don't watch every black person that comes into our store. We don't watch every 16-year-old kid that comes into our store. We look for things like big bags, people acting funny."

I wondered if the records bore this out. "If you went through our apprehensions," Rob said, "you'd find just as many white people as black people, just as many females as males, older people, younger people. Everyone does it."

He went on, "If someone comes in and he's along the back wall and his eyes are looking around like this, I'm going to watch them. It's always people's behavior. Or if people are grabbing four or five items at a time without looking at the size. Things like that. Kind of common sense."

Jan said, "Bad refunders get very creative about who purchased an item, and why they are returning it. Usually the more elaborate the story the more likely it's not true. Vary rarely do they come in and say, "I bought this.' It's always, 'My girlfriend's uncle bought it for me,' or 'My grandmother who lives in Arizona sent me this.'"

"The most unexpected person I catch shoplifting is the typical housewife." Rob said, "She'll have a stroller and she'll look like any other woman on the street. You wouldn't even suspect that she is filling up her stroller with kids clothes. It always surprises me when I catch people who look like they have money and are well-to-do. We've stopped doctors and people in three piece suits.

"There are professional thieves who'll clean you out. They'll unload racks of merchandise. They'll fill garbage bags up. They'll pull up a car next to our doors, run in, grab armloads of stuff, and run out the door. They'll be in the store ten seconds. No one can react that quick.

"Employees at times can be worse than shoplifters. If you have an employee working for five years and, say, she's taking twenty dollars a week, over five years that's a lot of money," Rob said. "Compare that to somebody stealing a pair of jeans or something."

I remember I did it just for the thrill, an easy score. But the consequences were pretty light. I wasn't likely to go to jail for snatching a Snickers. But why did people risk big trouble by stealing here? I asked Rob. "A lot of kids will say, 'My friends dared me to do it. They thought I was uncool.' People will steal for their families just to put clothes on their backs. Or people will resell it. Maybe they need money to pay bills. Or people just want something for themselves they can't afford."

Caught in the Act

Rob described a typical apprehension: "I saw them steal. I saw them put something in their bag. As soon as they hit the doors, I'll approach them and identify myself as security. I'll say, 'I'm stopping you for shoplifting. I'm going to need you to come back to my office to discuss the matter.' Ninety-five percent of the time they're going to admit right there that they have something in their bag. If they deny it, we come back here and they admit it eventually. If they cooperate with us, we'll work with them."

I asked Rob if he got to do flying tackles in the parking lot or hang on to fleeing get-away cars. "Used to be you could run after people, you could fight with people, thing like that. It makes it more fun, more exciting. But now, we're not even allowed to run after people. Our company has moved toward reducing liability. Now there are guidelines that say what we're allowed to apprehend people for. If we break our ethical guidelines, we'll get fired. You have to watch very very carefully. If you falsely accuse somebody of stealing, it's a big deal."

"As soon as we see someone conceal something, we can legally apprehend them. But we wait until they put their hand on the door; then we take them. They've passed every place they could have bought it. We don't want to go chasing people through the parking lot, because people can get hit. There're lawsuits out there, so we have to have good heads on our shoulders."

"For the most part, people are very cooperative. We don't carry any weapons, just handcuffs and that's all we have. Not even mace. If there's an altercation, we let it walk. A pair of jeans isn't worth getting shot. Occasionally, people will fight or just lunge. But that's when we call the police and let them take care of it."

When you catch grandma shoplifting, do you let her go with just a stern warning? I asked Rob. "I never let anybody off. Never. The way I see it, I'm not going to stop somebody unless I am 120 percent sure they've stolen from our store. When we come back here, they're either going to be prosecuted or end up paying a fine. Those are the two options. We never let anyone off."

"I've been tempted to let people go, but I'd never do it. I have to be consistent. When it comes down to it, most likely the worst that will happen to them is they will pay a fine."

Jan agreed, "I've never let anyone go. I'm a firm believer in the policy. Everybody's treated the same. We try not to let feelings get in the way of that. I don't have a problem with treating everyone equally. If I stopped an old lady, then she's shoplifting. If I stop a teenager, they're still committing a crime and taking advantage of us."

Jan and Rob know they don't catch all the thefts. "It happens a lot more often than you think," Rob said. "We don't catch everybody who steals out stuff. I am sure something is stolen everyday. But if people do it often enough, they'll be caught."

"People do get away with stuff," Jan said. "There are tons of shoplifters out there. If I let one go I'm unsure of, a half and hour later there's going to be someone else. We don't push to get numbers or to get every shoplifter, because they'll be back."

Bad Cop, Good Cop

Jan laid out the difference between being a retail security officer and being a real cop: "When a police officer responds to a crime after it's happened, they don't know who they are dealing with. They don't see the crime happen and they don't have all the details. They have to go on what was witnessed. As a retail security officer, you see the crime being committed from start to finish. You are with that person, observing that person, from the point they walk in, steal something, and leave the store."

Many of the uniformed security people I've met are complete pricks, wanna-be cops who couldn't make the cut. They were the people who got picked on in high school or the bullies who did the picking. But store detectives get to play it cool. They're undercover like Starsky and Hutch, minus the guns and the screeching tires.

"It's boring much of the time," Rob said. "I've been working all day today, and I haven't caught anybody. When you are walking around for five hours, and say it's a slow Monday, it's boring. But when somebody steals something and you saw it, it's excitement and it's exciting for that half hour while you are dealing with them."

Is it exciting enough? Is it like being David Starsky? "It's not murder or rape," Jan said, "but it has its moments."