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How to Catch a Thief

The art of skulking around a store undercover, the lowdown on profiling and tangling with a third-striker or two.

by
Bridget Johnson

Bio

May 31, 2013 - 5:04 pm
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What’s the profile of someone who ambles into a retail store, gives a furtive glance to and fro for security cameras or prying eyes, tears open a package, slips the goodies into a pocket or down a waistband, and steals past the checkout and out the door without paying?

As I learned before I became a journalist, the profile is all over the place. The motivations range from seeking resale cash to “just because I could.” And the lengths some people go to in a quest to steal can be pretty far.

As a criminology major in my home state of California, I worked a semester at the campus police department ticketing parking violators and did an internship in the criminal division of the county clerk’s office, where I mainly sat in the corner of the file room reading the juicy files with confidential stamps. I clearly needed a gig to earn my ramen noodles that came with a bit more, shall we say, hands-on work-study potential.

I got a job in loss prevention at PayLess Drugs, just before the chain transitioned into Rite Aid. As an undercover shoplifting bloodhound, I pretended to shop while canvassing the store for thieves. I’d rotate to different stores so “regulars” didn’t see me too often at one location.

My trainer was a pleasant, mild-mannered former military policeman with an uncanny knack for the game. Jack taught me how to shift the items at the edge of an endcap and position my body just so to be able to see down the aisle without being seen by the person standing in that aisle. Our operation was old-school: no handcuffs or weapons allowed, no radios or security cameras, no one-way mirrors or other hiding spots for surveillance. We could summon assistance on our arrests from store staff by yelling “44″ — out the door — but they were only supposed to serve as witnesses and not intervene. We weren’t supposed to chase suspects any farther than the edge of the parking lot — because if we did and the thief got hit by a car, we could get sued.

And we had the discretion whether to cite and release or call the cops to haul in the suspect, though some situations were mandatory cop calls — for instance, if a person admitted that they came into the store with the intent to steal, they and their big mouth got a burglary charge instead of petty theft.

Jack taught me to carry around an item from the store to look like I was running in to pick something up. He often joked about the fact that, being mostly bald, he always opted for a bottle of V05 shampoo — but he liked being able to squeeze it when the tension was on while following a suspect. My go-to cover product was a bag of Kotex, because it didn’t make noise when I was furtively watching someone; men get embarrassed by a woman carrying Kotex and look away, making it less likely they’d recognize me on the other side of the store; and I could throw it to the side while running out the door after a suspect without damaging any product. Though after an especially busy afternoon of arrests, a bemused store manager once called me to the front to address the five or so packs of pads scattered around the door.

Certain elements had to be in place before we could stop a suspect. You had to see the suspect enter the store to know that they didn’t bring in the product. This was the rule broken most often, as when you’re working the floor you can’t watch the door all day long, but I did get burned once later in my loss prevention career by not following it. You had to see selection of the product; again, to know that it’s not something brought into the store or to know someone wasn’t slipping her own wallet or brush back into her purse.

After selection comes the big whammy: concealment. And that’s when my heart would start racing with excitement. Some concealments were clearer than others; sometimes it was a back turned to you with hands that went to the front of the waistband with a product and came back empty, with no nearby shelf on which to dump it. Sometimes you’d get lucky and the concealment would be followed by another, setting your mind at rest that you could trust what you saw.

After concealment came one difference between the sexes: Men usually grab what they want to steal and get out of the store. Women take their time and put effort into trying to pull off the “I’m just naturally shopping” facade. So the next element, constant surveillance of a person who just shoplifted, was easier with male suspects. You had to keep an eye on them at all times to make sure they didn’t dump the product, which could happen if they knew they were being watched or got cold feet. Tailing someone  was even more difficult when there were few shoppers in the store — often just seeing a person who was on that side of the store suddenly with the shoplifter on this side of the store was enough to make the person abandon their grand plans of theft. Sometimes they were too absorbed in their plot to notice or care.

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All Comments   (15)
All Comments   (15)
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Yes, profiling has been a tool of law enforcement for decades. Just make sure you only profile whites, else the PC Police will nab you in a heartbeat.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Fascinating story. Ashamed to admit, I got popped shoplifting in a nice department store as a teenager. I just did it because it was fun. They took us to the office, called in the police, who walked us, handcuffed, ALL the way through the store instead of to the nearest entrance, humilliating us thoroughly. Then to the police station, where they fingerprinted us and called our parents. There was no further action. There didn't need to be. I never touched anything that wasn't mine again.
Keep up the good work, Security people. You never know whose life you might be changing for the better.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
This brought back memories of working in 'asset protection' for a supermarket over 30 years ago. If you do this for a while you develop a sixth sense and can identify someone who bears watching the instant they walk in the door.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I spent several years working retail security. I watched one guy put on an expensive pair of running shoes and then try them out by sprinting out the door. The worst part was the shoes he left behind were nicer than the ones I was wearing.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
It is a shame that the modern employment law dynamic has essentially eliminated the tradition of retail as the "first job" for young people. In my youth the job you describe was called the "floorwalker." You had a lot more power to take steps to keep your merchandise on the shelves prior to the '70s than you do today. I'd have never dreamed of opening my shop in Atlanta without my pistol in my pocket or on my belt. One of the great things about moving to Alaska in '74 was trading the pistols in Seattle for a 30.06 and a 12 guage; didn't own another handgun for 20 years. You learn a lot about people by working retail; too bad young people don't get that opportunity any more.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Hmmmmm, shoplifting! Sounds like this could be fodder for another good Bachmann bill to be introduced along with these:

http://www.theonion.com/articles/michele-bachmann-figures-why-not-introduces-homose,32641/?ref=auto
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Did they send out a memo from commie central to spread this crap? Practically every lefty pi**ant I know has posted something about the Bachman beheading bill today. You idiots have quite circle jerk going.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Durn! I hate when people pick up on my early breaking leads! Where all did you see the story being republished besides Psychology Today?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Yup. Obama's Director of Progressive Media and Online Response gives the word and all his minions spring into action.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Nothing makes Z 1 and his ilk more giddy with delight than finding a reason to attack a beautiful woman. If she were homely they'd leave her alone. It isn't her policies they hate, it's her beauty.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Durn! If you and Art consider that woman pretty, beautiful or anything remotely close, I'd sure hate too live in you guys world!
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
If she were homely, she'd be a Democrat vagitarian.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
You got an early start in crime prevention and now you're smack in the middle of the Crime Capital of the USA. Keep after them crooks and thanks for the interesting story. Your commentaries are also interesting.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I love it. Good work, MS Johnson. And kudos for all the great posts you have put up on PJM.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Great article. I worked a lot of retail jobs in High School and College, and lots of time was spent keeping an eye out for shoplifters. Of all the places i worked, a small Mom and Pop video store was where I caught the most people trying to steal stuff. Of course that was back in the day when a VHS copy of a movie cost upwards of 80 bucks!
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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