How to Catch a Thief

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 someoneĀ  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.