22 February 2022

So You Want to be a Shoplifter

     I meet a great many small-time thieves during my work week. They shuffle into my tornado shelter of a courtroom located in the basement of the county jail. For most of them, I read a few details about their alleged offenses. The following is a list compiled from those encounters. 

    I've ranked the methods roughly by order of frequency. The list below only deals with retail theft. (If I expanded it to theft generally, I'd have to include defendants who take a reciprocating saw to the nearest apartment complex and begin collecting catalytic converters.)

    There is nothing scientific in the methodology. It's my list of observations over time. I'm also not vouching for the success of any of the below-listed techniques. I only meet my defendants when their attempts at thievery have been interrupted. Lastly, I'm not recommending any of the methods set out below. Local retailers have had a tough time the last few years. Give them a break. Pay for the merchandise before taking it from their stores. 

    That said, here you go. 

    1.  Just Grab It. This is the "See it--Want it--Take it Technique. (Or possibly, the See it--Think someone else will want it and therefore it has a resale value--Take it Technique.) The "grab and go" is the simplest and most common form of shoplifting I see during my workday. It occurs at Mom and Pop's and at the biggest of the Big Boxes. Some thieves grab individual items while others load up shopping carts and race out the door. A few have learned that if they steal a backpack, they can stuff it and keep their arms free for the sprint to freedom. The thieves who think about it, try to dash out through the Garden Center, or some other exit of the store considered less populated by Loss Prevention employees. 

    Although I meet middle-agers and senior citizens who attempt this most direct form of the five-finger discount, most of my grabbers are young. Occasionally, I see organized bands who sweep through a store, scooping up bags of merchandise. They are the locusts of the theft business. These crimes usually happen in clothing retailers. 

    2. Just Grab It, Oversized Clothes variation: Same technique as #1, but the thief wears baggy clothing. The fabric hidey-hole gets stuffed with merchandise. Since the thieves can't move as quickly in clothes stuffed with merch, concealment is necessary for success. Women wearing loose dresses many times head to the Electronics Department, while men with baggy pants seem to prefer the meat market of the grocer or warehouse store. If you're tempted to buy a discounted chuck roast from a guy on the street corner, think about where he might have hidden it shortly before you saw it. The mental picture might make you a vegetarian. 

    A baby stroller sometimes substitutes for baggy clothes. Kids also play their part in the next Method #3. 

3. Skip-scanning: Load up a grocery cart with items, push the cart to the self-checkout, and then only scan a portion of them. In the alternative, palm the bar code of an inexpensive item, and pass your hand beneath the scanner while you slide the T-bones and ribeye steaks into the shopping bag. A confederate often accompanies the thief. The skip-scanning method has some costs. The thief must pay for some of the merchandise. 

    If detected, the skip-scanning culprit will usually adopt a confused look and blame his or her children. The rug rats dropped those high-value items into the bag without the arrestee's knowledge. Much finger-pointing at the confederate is involved. Loss prevention officers frequently hear the phrase, "I thought you scanned that one." 

    Practice tip 1. Before you start waving your arms in an indignant claim that the kids did this, remember to peel the barcode off your hand. 

    Practice tip 2. If the store is on to you, sometimes they'll send a member of their helpful and courteous staff over and offer to assist you with the checkout. Unless helpful and courteous is a blood relative, expect to pay the full amount. They'll likely scan everything. 

    Practice tip 3. Contrary to street wisdom, bringing a child on a shoplifting adventure won't keep a thief from being arrested. It usually just delays the trip downtown until a guardian can be contacted. 

    4. Receipt Recycling: This technique most frequently occurs at the big box home improvement stores. Wander around the parking lot until you find a discarded sales receipt. Enter the store and collect the exact items detailed on it. Push the cart out, displaying the receipt as proof that you've already paid for the items. In the alternative, steer yourself into the Returns line. Bring back the items you've just loaded and seek a refund. Try to get cash for that hot DeWalt drill. 

    Receipt Recycling requires a certain attention to detail. It may not be the best method for defendants who shoplift while high. 

    Practice tip 4. If you're tempted to try it, don't deploy a receipt blackened with tire marks from having been driven over in the parking lot of the Big Box. 

    These are a few of the common methods. Since we celebrate human creativity and imagination in a reader's and writer's blog, it should come as no surprise that there are infinite variations to the above-described techniques. Methods change as rumors about what works swirl through the criminal community. 

    Remember: Don't try any of these at home. Thievery violates some of society's oldest commandments as well as the laws of every state. And I only get the details by observing people who have been caught. 

A while back, the above examples got me thinking about a story idea. In the March/April issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, I explore a fifth method for committing retail theft. The story, "DIY," is loosely based on a caper I read about while working in the jail. The story, however, is not intended as a theft tutorial, but rather a contest between the people involved. I hope that the questions you ask at the end are less about the larceny technique and more about the moral choices of the characters. Mostly, I hope that you enjoy it. 

    Until next time. 


  1. An entertaining tribute to human ingenuity!

  2. Love the advice about chuck roasts. You could probably fill many pages of this site: https://notalwaysright.com/right/

    1. I'm happy to have performed a public service. It's not just fruits and vegetables that need rinsing.

  3. I've never used a self-checkout & never will, unless the store puts me on their 401K plan & gives me paid time off. I read somewhere that self-checkouts have caused HUGE losses at stores that installed them, because of the methods described in the skip-scanning tutorial you wrote.

    1. I met a guy this week who taped a Kool-Aid package over the bar code of an air mattress and headed for the self scanner. He was aiming for his ear to ear Kool Aid smile.

  4. Yes, in my experience with shoplifters, almost everything goes straight down into the pants or other pit areas. Rinse, rinse, rinse!

  5. Always entrancing and educational, Mark.

    I've known two shoplifters. Both did it for the thrill. Both died young. The more recent died in an alcohol-related accident.

    The other was a freshman in a top math-science-engineering school, a place where a number of kids were rich and pretty much everyone had genius-level IQs. This boy stood out stood out amid the wealthy kids because he received a weekly allowance greater than the average man earned.

    And then he got caught stealing truly minor items, one of them a bag of Cheetos.

    The judge was amazing, keeping in mind the reputation of the school and how hard the students worked. He ordered the boy to attend classes during the week and serve his sentence on weekends.

    Students and staff vacated the campus for Christmas break. Virtually everyone departed. Except for this boy.

    When students returned, his roommate found him hanged in his dorm room. It was then we learned about his indifferent and unloving parents. The large allowance was apparently a substitute for affection. Talk about a cry for help.

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