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.

Then a person needed to cross the line of where the registers were without paying for the product and head out the door. We'd jump out in front of the person, flash an ID, and attempt to corral them back in without physical manhandling, which was easier said than done. But again, the store feared liability. If you had to chase someone, you naturally had to try to grab them. Sometimes a fleeing suspect would throw down the property in hopes that you'd stop chasing them. If he was within reach, I'd keep chasing.

Most of the time suspects were cooperative, like my first bust out on my own after a month of training with Jack. An 18-year-old guy stole a pack of condoms on a Friday afternoon because he was too embarrassed to buy them. As the first arrest on your own is a pretty big hurdle, that was a lucky pack of Trojans. He acknowledged that I ruined his Friday night.

For each thief any of us caught in the store, we knew at least five got away each day. They'd leave their markers like roach droppings: torn packages, discarded wrappers, a UPC torn off because the miscreant feared a sensor was encased within.

Police usually took forever to respond to the drugstores, especially in the worse areas of the city, so we had to take that into consideration in a decision to prosecute. While I'd sit there for three hours with an unrestrained suspect in the back of the store, I'd always think about what other products were flying off the shelves and out the door. Once a suspect who claimed not to speech English kept trying to reach out and feel my leg with a creepy grin on his face as I kept calling the police to urge them to step up their response; I eventually just kicked Grabby out of the store and told the police dispatcher to forget it.

One of the first lessons of surveillance at a drugstore is the observation that people can be really disgusting. To this day I always grab the third deodorant back on the shelf because I've seen people try on the stuff and put it back. I'll never buy a loose, unpackaged hairbrush or comb, because I've seen people use them -- and one guy blow on the brush to release whatever residue collected after he pulled it through this hair -- and put them back on the shelf.

And though some busts were more amusing than others -- the guy who unwrapped fishing lures and stuck them throughout his clothes, making it a painful chore to recover the product -- the hardcore criminals more than balanced out the kids who shoplifted on a dare or the occasional sticky-fingers.

One night I chased a thief to the edge of the parking lot, where he turned around and swung a hypodermic needle at me; I jumped back just in time to avoid getting stuck. Another evening I chased a man into the parking lot who turned around and began pulling a gun out of his coat; upon seeing two store employees race up behind me he thought better of it and ran away.

Then one day I spotted a woman place a floppy denim purse in the child seat of an otherwise empty cart, wheeling it back and forth around the store. She stopped in front of the Fruit of the Loom section, unwrapped a pack of briefs, held one up for size, seemed to like what she saw, and placed the pack on top of the purse. Around the next aisle, with an unzip and a zip, the undies disappeared into the purse. She did the same with a foot care product from the Dr. Scholl's section. Leaving the empty cart by the front door, she walked out into the parking lot toward her car, where I caught up with her.

I confronted the suspect and employed the loophole to the rule about not grabbing a suspect if you can help it -- if our product was in their bag, you could grab the bag. So when she was uncooperative I got a hand on the purse. She got in her car, my arm was over the top of the door, she slammed the door on my arm, started the car and began driving off while holding the door closed on my arm. I got dragged along for a little bit before I freed my arm; I got her license plate and it wasn't long before she got hauled in on three felony charges: assault with a deadly weapon, strong-arm robbery and petty theft with priors. I got hauled in to get chewed out by my boss with a six-inch oval hard welt on the inside of my right forearm, which was in a sling.

My case was prosecuted by a sleepy deputy DA whose wife had just had a baby; he was so not in trial mode that at one point on the stand I called objection to the defense asking a totally irrelevant question. The judge chided the prosecutor to ask for an objection and then ruled it sustained. Despite being convicted on all three charges, the woman's family hauled a small grandchild before the judge to plead against jail time and she was given probation. "Better luck next time," one guy in the exceptionally trashy family told me as they walked out of the courtroom.

After some healing time and an exquisitely boring stint as a bank teller, I returned to undercover loss prevention at one of the coolest stores that ever was, Tower Records. Here we had security cameras, one-way glass, secret cubbies in the wall cloaked by the custom pop-art, walkie talkies and handcuffs. I also had a partner, a short, stocky guy named Dave, which made the job more fun and efficient.

Here I confirmed what I'd seen during my time at PayLess: Men and women shoplift about equally. Different races and ethnicities shoplift about the same. We even once looked through our arrest logs to see if there was any pattern of ages, gender and race or ethnicity, and it was all over the map. Occasionally whole families shoplifted together, with adults sticking the stolen goods on the little kids. And you couldn't tell a book by its cover: one particularly thuggish-looking customer who piqued my attention simply came into the store to buy the book "Boo to You, Winnie the Pooh" for his kid. We kept Polaroids of shoplifters and I found one of a straight-laced piano whiz I went to high school with, glumly holding his stolen item: a masturbation manual.

We also investigated and rooted out internal theft, but that mainly happened with people who hadn't worked there long and not among the tried-and-true stoners who loved Tower and considered it their home.

And even though the manager put the hottest rap CDs of the time behind the counter, that by no means stopped the shoplifting. Tower sold other items that were catnip to thieves, including porn videos and magazines, books on how to grow weed and "The Anarchist Cookbook." Magically, I started getting quicker responses from the police, too, which certainly had nothing to do with the free promotional CDs from the record companies and free concert and movie tickets that were always laying around next to the loss prevention office and drew the cops' attention. I understand why they got excited; I still have lots of those free CDs.

The employee discount for non-promotional material was great, too, so it was no stretch to pretend like I was shopping. Twirling my hair and playing dumb college girl, people would shoplift right next to me. Once I picked up a 2Pac cassette (yes, old school), put it back on the shelf, and a guy next to me said, "Go ahead, take it."

"I can't do that," I faux-protested. "I'd get in trouble!"

"Nah," he responded. "I do it here all the time!"

The horror of this conversation is that we couldn't talk to a suspect before busting him or her, lest they claim entrapment. So I had to try to burn him out, making my way back into the office and using the intercom to call "security, area 4" -- nothing like that existed, of course -- and watching the cameras to make sure he got nervous enough and left the store.

Tower loss prevention was a bit more of a contact sport. We had a fair share of shoplifters who were on their third strike and would stop at nothing to prevent being hauled in. Once Dave and I were trying to cuff a much larger suspect and one of Dave's elbows popped me in the eye, leaving its mark. During one of the times I was pursuing a fleeing suspect and tried a flying leap to catch him before he exited the parking lot boundary, I missed my mark and skidded across the pavement. Unfortunately I was wearing shorts, and a store employee had to point out to me that blood was running down my legs into my white Keds.

The adrenaline rush from arresting a shoplifter may have been heightened by the knowledge that we were primitively equipped with just a pair of handcuffs. I once busted a hulking guy who cooperatively accompanied me back to the office, where I asked if he had anything I might stick myself with while searching him. He pulled out an eight-inch knife. "Let's just put that over here until we're done," I said, resting it on the other side of the office. When he was eventually released, the suspect shook my hand and thanked me.

My partner had a worse time with a deadly weapon on one of my nights off. Dave went outside to confront a guy who'd just ripped off a couple of CDs, and the guy pulled a gun on Dave. "It's yours, man," he said, turning back toward the store and walking away. The shoplifter and his friends jumped Dave and beat his head against a bicycle rack. The police helicopter was called out to search for the suspects and Dave returned to work the next day, one eye swollen shut.

From Tower I went directly into my first journalism job, reporting on crime, fire, city council and whatever else happened in the tiny town for a 3,000-circulation weekly newspaper. I never added my number of arrests between the two jobs, but I probably brought in about 200 thieves -- some third-strikers handed over to the cops, some porn-stealing kids who begged me to call the cops instead of their parents. But I still can't go into a store without my ears perking at the rip of cellophane on the next aisle, without noticing that telltale fidget and nervous glance of a would-be shoplifter, without clearly removing and replacing my iPhone in my bag to make sure the guys behind the lens know exactly what I'm doing -- or, more aptly, not doing.