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Confessions of a shoplifter.


People tend to have preconceived notions concerning shoplifters, visualizing them as kids or unkempt people strolling in off the street. In the case of a professional shoplifter, which I was for four years, nothing could be further from the truth. My cohorts and I were always impeccably dressed and well-mannered - we were the least likely suspects.

And we were good at it. For four years I paid my rent, car payments, insurance, and other expenses with shoplifting income alone. We purloined only the finest clothing from the most exclusive shops. Though apprehended, we were never convicted. As a reformed shoplifter, I hope the information presented here is helpful to those in the retail business who are trying to apprehend shoplifters.

What makes shoplifting an attractive and profitable occupation? Believe it or not, often it is a store's own return policy. Most major retail clothing stores will return any article for cash back, which usually comes in the form of a check by mail if one does not have a receipt. Some chains do not even ask for a valid form of ID when making a cash refund.

Although returns can be made at stores that require a photo ID, my partner and I always targeted those stores the least. Those establishments made it less convenient for us and taxed our resources a little more. A good start for any retail outlet trying to deter shoplifting is to require a valid photo ID with any return. Also, a record should be kept and updated with each cash refund so the store can track individuals with an unusually high number of refunds - a good indication of dubious activity.

Although at times I worked on my own, usually I worked with a partner. One of us would enter the store 10 minutes before the other and proceed to a predesignated target area, decreasing the chances that we would be associated with one another. The individual who arrived first would scout the area for the most expensive articles of clothing - cashmere sweaters and anything by Giorgio Armani were favorites.

Once the items had been chosen, they were taken into the dressing room to be "tried on." The person would go back and forth, trying on this and that, all the while leaving some of the more expensive items in the fitting room. If a salesperson asked if we needed help we always said no. If he or she persisted, we accepted the assistance and made a purchase. Sometimes one of us accepted help from and engaged in flirtation with the salesperson while the other set the fitting rooms up for the kill. Naturally, while the salesperson was engaged with the sale the other would be collecting the goods in the fitting room where they had been left.

We made it a rule never to be in the fitting rooms at the same time. "Pseudoshopper A" would drop a penny on the floor in front of the designated fitting room as an indicator for "pseudoshopper B."

One thing that made my job as a shoplifter easier was untidy fitting rooms. Not only did this save me from having to choose the item to steal, but it eliminated the risk of being noticed carrying the item into the fitting room. Untidy fitting rooms make it difficult for security personnel to keep tabs on items and people coming and going.

Salespeople could be of great assistance to security personnel if they would simply keep the fitting rooms free of residual clothing. One of my most frustrating moments was when one department store chain employed fitting room checkers to regulate the number of garments going in and out of the rooms during the holiday season and to make sure the rooms were clean.

I always insisted that all thefts take place in the fitting room behind the cover of closed doors to reduce the chance of witnesses. Sometimes security staff look in on the fitting rooms through vents in the ceiling, so I always chose a room with no vents above it. Perhaps the most cherished element of shoplifting is privacy. Sales personnel should be aware that anyone walking into the store is a potential shoplifter and good customer service is an excellent deterrent.

An overly attentive staff can be the bane of a shoplifter's existence. Nordstrom department store is an excellent example. Not only does it provide impeccable service, but security there uses the sales staff as the frontline defense against shoplifting. They are trained to be attentive and to keep an eye out for shoplifters, and they receive incentives for information leading to the apprehension of a shoplifter. Though good, Nordstrom security is not infallible. The louvered doors typically found in the fitting rooms do not allow someone to see in from outside, affording the shoplifter extra privacy.

We were always on the lookout for security. There were indicators that alerted us to security personnel - they usually patrolled in pairs and carried a bag containing a walkie-talkie to communicate with mall security or other security personnel.

We always followed a procedure called tracing that I credit for my never being convicted. This entailed walking around the store after we had concealed the goods in a bag or box. We would walk to various departments, and if anyone, even coincidentally, happened to be in or around two different departments with us, we ditched the goods.

SECURITY PERSONNEL SHOULD NOTE that when tailing suspected shoplifters, it's a good idea to give them plenty of distance or even alternate personnel. Remember that the person you may be following may not be the one with the goods. Before apprehending a suspected shoplifter, security personnel should survey the entire situation to determine if an individual is acting alone or with a partner.

There are certain clues to look for. My cohorts and I used to give each other signals: A hand through the hair meant there were security personnel in the area; rubbing a hand on a thigh meant the goods were secured and we should depart; a series of coughs meant security was on to us and we must abort our mission.

Security personnel should also be aware of some of the things shoplifters do for fun. For instance, we did something called the "big switch." This required one of us (the spotter) to shoplift in plain view of security while the other (the pseudoshopper) waited in the dressing room for the spotter to quickly come in and dump the clothes, then occupy another fitting room before security came in.

The spotter carried a big bag and made loud noises as if he or she were putting clothes in it. The spotter would then exit the fitting room and walk around the store with security hot on his tail while the pseudoshopper made off with the goods. When the spotter left the store, security would apprehend him or her and determine that not only had they wasted 25 to 30 minutes of valuable time, but they had lost the merchandise as well and exposed themselves to the possibility of a civil suit.

Security personnel should keep track of the storage of inventory control tags and the equipment that removes them from the clothing. We once stole a large quantity of the tags and walked through the store discreetly placing them in baby strollers and unsuspecting shoppers' bags. Then we sat at a point outside the store and enjoyed our handiwork.

We also stole hand-held and easily concealed inventory control tag removers, which we carried in foil-lined candy boxes. They increased our productivity and made our job easier and less time-consuming. Before acquiring the tag removers, we had had to wrap the inventory control tags in aluminum foil to prevent them from setting off the sensors as we exited the store.

Sometimes we tried to recruit help from store employees. We once had the manager of a men's department for a major clothing store helping us.

Although the manager did not actually steal articles for us, he helped us identify security personnel and assisted us in getting refunds for merchandise. Numerous refunds to the same people are a good indicator that a security problem exists, and the manager helped in masking that.

The training standards for retail and loss prevention security personnel must be elevated. These standards concern all security personnel, and properly trained personnel can protect the individual security officer as well as the department store from costly litigation and civil liability.

I was apprehended on two separate occasions, but the security staff's lack of knowledge of proper legal procedures in search and seizure and gathering evidence prevented my partner and me from being prosecuted. To make matters worse for the store, we slapped it with a lawsuit. Security personnel should be trained in the legal procedures governing search and seizure and evidence gathering. The work only begins at the point of arrest. After that, evidence must be gathered and statements taken to build a solid case.

When appraching a suspected shoplifter, security personnel should never be rude or use unnecessary force. The suspect should be approached in a discreet and professional manner. Security personnel must always identify themselves and be careful of what they say when witnesses are present.

Search and seizure should be conducted with caution. Consult individual state laws governing search and seizure. Generally, security personnel should only detain, and if the stolen item is visible it can be recovered.

Another subject for security managers to consider is the indiscretion of security personnel when off duty. Fortunately for us, one time a security officer with a major department store was engaged in an alcohol-induced, one-man diatribe on how they (security) went about catching shoplifters. He proceeded to give away all their trade secrets as my partner and I just sat back and listened, enjoying the irony of it all.

I hope security professionals can benefit by knowing these tricks of the trade. As shoplifting becomes an ever-increasing social phenomenon, it is wise to try and stay one step ahead of the criminal - and to remember that the criminal is trying to stay one step ahead of security at the same time.

Steve Willis (a pseudonym) was a professional shoplifter for four years. Today, he is security manager for a large cargo carrier and is pursuing a master's degree in criminal justice. He also is involved in private consulting and security awareness programs for the retail industry.
COPYRIGHT 1991 American Society for Industrial Security
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Willis, Steve
Publication:Security Management
Date:Jan 1, 1991
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