People Trusting Uniforms

An improv group in New York dressed similarly to Best Buy employees and went into a store, secretly video taping the results.

My favorite part:

Security guards and managers started talking to each other frantically on their walkie-talkies and headsets. "Thomas Crown Affair! Thomas Crown Affair!," one employee shouted. They were worried that were using our fake uniforms to stage some type of elaborate heist. "I want every available employee out on the floor RIGHT NOW!"

Since the people did not actually try to impersonate Best Buy employees, could they be charged with any crime?

Posted on May 4, 2006 at 1:39 PM • 71 Comments

Comments

Pat CahalanMay 4, 2006 1:58 PM

Says something interesting about security processes. Those who are "responsible" for security have to be properly trained, or their mere responsibility will cause an exaggerated response.

"The lower level employees laughed and got a kick out of it while the managers and security guards freaked out."

The lower level employees could tell immediately that it was a gag. The managers and security guards freaked out.

Why?

Because the managers and security guards aren't well trained. They ignore their natural human ability to recognize a gag because they've been overly conditioned to be suspicious.

Of course, properly training people is hard and expensive.

TedMay 4, 2006 2:07 PM

@Pat Calahan- Alternatively, the regular employees may have been amused and unconcerned because threats to store security didn't concern them.

Management looks bad if the store gets robbed. Regular employees just chuckle and get a kick out of seeing their bosses sweat.

JungsonnMay 4, 2006 2:18 PM

It is easy to infiltrate but mainly in big companies or stores, where there are so called "units" most units do not know in which unit the other belongs, so one can go unattended. Imagine then i you would ask: can is borrow your keycard i forgot mine in the lockroom, and yes... all access granted. I also have some old uniform from an electronic store where i worked, well if i put it on and act very bold, little would notice.

t3knomanserMay 4, 2006 2:22 PM

Reading the article, the police did not see any possible charges, although Best Buy tried.

Uniforms have some incredible advantages- they make it easy to identify a member of some group; they have an equalizing force on the individual members of the group.

The downside is that people begin to view them as credentials, which they certainly are not.

TimMay 4, 2006 2:42 PM

I hope that this is not a crime. A few years ago, I accidentally went into a Target store wearing a red shirt and khaki pants. I realized the errors of my dress when a fellow customer asked me where something was.

jayhMay 4, 2006 2:45 PM

>>The lower level employees could tell immediately that it was a gag. The managers and security guards freaked out.

Why?

For the same reason that the FBI finds humore incomprehensible. They do not pass the 'reasonable person test'

jayhMay 4, 2006 2:46 PM

>>I hope that this is not a crime. A few years ago, I accidentally went into a Target store wearing a red shirt and khaki pants. I realized the errors of my dress when a fellow customer asked me where something was

Wearing an orange shirt in Home Depot will get you mobbed with requests.

Jack TwistMay 4, 2006 3:14 PM

I actually about fell out of my chair laughing when I read this the other day (I believe I first saw it on Fark). The management reaction is is the same mind-numbingly day-to-day groupthink that plagues the US in general. Our society impresses upon us to be passive, simple lemmings just following orders and never questioning anything. Suddenly when the rules are questioned, even by something as simple as being present wearing the right color shirts and pants, all heck breaks loose. I've read about some of the other exploits by this group and all I have to say is, "Bravo!" Besides being entertaining to read about, I think they are providing society with a valuable service.

AnonymousMay 4, 2006 3:16 PM

"Since the people did not actually try to impersonate Best Buy employees, could they be charged with any crime?"

Sure. Resisting arrest.

Ask them to leave. If they leave, problem solved. If they don't leave, use reasonable force. If they resist, charge them with assault. If they look threatening, charge them with affray. If they're in a group, charge them with riot.

Sul3n3tMay 4, 2006 3:20 PM

The participants all knew well and good to leave the store as soon as asked and not to saw they were employees. Nothing was done illegally or wrong; just harmless humor.

Mike ScottMay 4, 2006 3:27 PM

I don't see that they could be charged with a crime if they *did* claim to be Best Buy employees -- deception is not normally illegal, unless it is used in order to commit some other crime. Impersonating a police officer is generally an offence, but not impersonating some other uniformed person.

Matthew SkalaMay 4, 2006 4:08 PM

I once had a customer in a liquidation outlet try to get me to resolve some kind of complaint she had with an employee. She assumed I was the manager because I was wearing a tie, and possibly also because I was male.

Pat CahalanMay 4, 2006 4:09 PM

@ Anonymous

> If they don't leave, use reasonable force.

This can get you in serious trouble, if you're talking about store employees using force (as opposed to police). This isn't like ejecting a trespasser from your house.

Pretty much the only thing you can do reasonably (as a store employee) is ask them to leave, and if they refuse to leave call the police. Once you use force, you're opening yourself up to a jury deciding if your use was reasonable or not - that's risky.

> If they resist, charge them with assault.

If they resist who (and how?) If you ask someone to leave your store, and they sit down on the floor and refuse to leave, you certainly can't charge them with assault (although you could charge them with trespassing).

> If they look threatening, charge them with affray.

Again, this is risky if you're talking about a private citizen performing the arrest. They can sue you for false arrest and again you're up against a jury determining whether or not they looked threatening or not.

BrianettaMay 4, 2006 4:32 PM

Nobody sees the obvious benefit to the store. I bet not one shoplifter was comfortable that day.

dragonfrogMay 4, 2006 5:49 PM

"Since the people did not actually try to impersonate Best Buy employees, could they be charged with any crime?"

"Impersonating an officer", that makes sense to call a crime. But "Impersonating a Best Buy clerk"? If that is a crime, then someone needs to slip antipsychotics into the coffee urns at the White House...

VickiMay 4, 2006 6:16 PM

Not only will customers assume that another customer works for a store because s/he is wearing clothes that look somewhat like the store uniform [sometimes a shirt of the same color is enough], some of them will refuse to believe it when told "I don't work here" and demand that store management punish or fire the fellow customer for being unhelpful.

Rob MayfieldMay 4, 2006 6:52 PM

A couple of slightly related points:

- I cant help but think how this could have been a great PR opportunity if handled differently by the store.

- Conversely, imagine now what might happen if a half dozen people enter the same store next week using the same trick, wired up better than Tom Cruise's paper stand, and do something really ugly. (theres another movie plot, 4 groups of unconnectable pranksters causing random scenes and a fifth group imitating their pranks at random for the purpose of terror ...)

- its good to see that enough people are willing to be involved in something coordinated that exposes the lack of depth in security training that we are exposed to in everyday life, when we are confronted by "security guards" and "managers" who in many cases are probably no more suitable or qualified for the role than someone picked randomly from the street.

It also occured to me that theres an easy way for stores to protect against this kind of threat. Each employee simply has an RFID tag implanted in the end of their nose or possibly a buttock. Customers are then issued with a scanner upon entering the store which can be used to readily identify the store employees ... The new IBM developed technology to limit the range of RFID could be used to protect the employees privacy by requiring the scanner to be within 3mm of the chip for it to work. Problem solved.

ArchangelMay 4, 2006 6:59 PM

I work at an Ace Hardware, and occasionally a customer will come in wearing red, and get asked questions by other customers, but our employees tend to wear vests, so that limits things. Most of these customers are obviously customers in behavior.

I have noticed that it isn't what you wear, so much as how you act that points to employee. It's like spotting bodyguards; they're the ones *not* looking at the famous person. Being comfortable and non-curious around merchandise, looking at customers instead of stuff, and being clean and neat and unoccupied tend to scream 'non-customer', and after that, the next logical step tends to be 'employee'. Employees ignore a lot of their surroundings because they have become natural, where customers are not in their natural environment, and act that way.

The blue shirts and khakis just add to the impression.

Come to think of it, similar attitudes apply to any impersonation of authority -- mimic legitimacy well enough to put you outside of the automatically non-legitimate category, and the first instinct is to jump you over to legitimate authority.

BLPMay 4, 2006 8:04 PM

If you read down in the "agent reports", one of them (in blue shirt) visited a couple of other stores first (Staples, Target), and was also assumed to be an employee-- even though she was wearing the wrong colors.

stacyMay 4, 2006 8:40 PM

I couldn't help wondering about what it would be like to be the poor sap who was not part of this but wore a blue shirt and went to Best Buy at that time :-)

RogerMay 4, 2006 9:15 PM

@ Pat Cahalan

> > If they don't leave, use reasonable force.
>
> This can get you in serious trouble, if you're talking about store employees using force (as opposed to police). This isn't like ejecting a trespasser from your house.

This is by no means necessarily always the case in all places. Legislation on this varies considerably from place to place, and the policy for each individual store most definitely should be formed after legal advice on local law. The local law where I am now, if you first warn the trespasser and give him reasonable opportunity to leave voluntarily, and then use minimum reasonable force, then you are most unlikely to get in trouble.

A common method of minimum reasonable force is to have one burly employee on each of the trespasser's arms, march them to the door and stand there to see they do not re-enter. It is important to avoid one-on-one, because then whether or not things go well depends on whose kung fu is better; with two-on-one, you largely eliminate risk of injury to either party, and the method is widely and traditionally recognised as a reasonable level of force to deal with a trespassing nuisance.

It is also important to take the trespasser directly off the premises and not try to detain them, because even in those places where trespass IS a crime, it is usually only a misdemeanour and not subject to citizen's arrest.

In jurisdictions where trespass law is entirely civil, the only thing the police can bring to the party is a show of authority, and backup if things turn nasty; often, UNLIKE the property owner or his agents, they have no right to forcibly eject a trespasser. Further some places such as shopping malls, bars and casinos eject nuisance trespassers several times a day, and if they called the police every time that in itself would be a public nuisance.

> Pretty much the only thing you can do reasonably (as a store employee) is ask them to leave, and if they refuse to leave call the police. Once you use force, you're opening yourself up to a jury deciding if your use was reasonable or not - that's risky.

Just use the one-man-to-each arm rule, and the jury will have no trouble deciding. Unless your local laws are very restrictive, the jury will laugh them out of court. Actually they probably won't laugh, they will be annoyed at having their time wasted by a frivolous suit and award costs against the plaintiff.

> > If they resist, charge them with assault.

> If they resist who (and how?) If you ask someone to leave your store, and they sit down on the floor and refuse to leave, you certainly can't charge them with assault

If a trespasser sits down on the floor and refuses to budge, then one burly employee on each arm can pick them up, and throw them out. If the trespasser uses _force_ to resist being thrown out, then they are certainly guilty of assault.

> (although you could charge them with trespassing).

Only if trespass is a crime or misdemeanour in your jurisdiction (in most places it's only a civil tort). Where it's a tort you could sue, but for trespass in a shop I would think you are unlikely to get much in the way of damages unless they drove away your customers. It's probably not worth the legal fees.

> > If they look threatening, charge them with affray.
>
> Again, this is risky if you're talking about a private citizen performing the arrest. They can sue you for false arrest and again you're up against a jury determining whether or not they looked threatening or not.

I'd have to agree here. Unless you have a very unusual local definition of affray, "look threatening" is not going to cut it. Traditionally affray requires threatening violence by more than words alone, to a degree that a person of "reasonable firmness" fears for his safety. At an absolute minimum, something like adopting a boxing stance whilst making a credible threat of violence.

AndrewMay 4, 2006 9:27 PM

This is a beautiful effort at flagging, which is a competitive strategy in ecological systems. (Also known as branding, logos, etc.)

>> Since the people did not actually try to impersonate Best Buy employees, could they be charged with any crime?

Under the group's operating procedures, no. The managers can trespass them once it's been established that they're not there to shop, but that's about it.

I would have really enjoyed watching something like this if I were working security at the store. Once I established that they weren't present to steal, it's kind of a fun break from the normal routine.

The classic solution to this problem (for example, if terrorists thoughtfully bring their own black BDUs and SWAT vests to the incident) is to pass out a brightly colored scarf or bakclava to each legitimate employee just before the change in operational tempo.

"May I have your attention please? Best Buy shoppers, please be aware that our employees are wearing yellow scarves today as part of a special promotion. Thank you for shopping Best Buy today."

A related technique is to keep a supply of lanyards and transparent badge holders, with a word processing template so that you can print the Word of the Day and the date. A Staples, Office Depot, etc. could do this with off-shelf items if a manager thought fast.

"THANK YOU FOR SHOPPING BEST BUY. 5/4/2006."

We have had occasional thoughts about security personnel wearing fake uniforms, especially because badges etc. can be purchased on eBay. A quick answer is to ask a question that only a legitimate member of the security team can answer.

"Who is the regional security manager? Where is the master fire panel? What is the radio code for officer needs help?"

A better, classier answer is a discreet pin of the day -- week -- month -- or best of all, per special event. This is what the diplo types use.

(Dallas PD is still embarrassed about the time they left the box of Secret Service Secret Pins in an unsecured suite and not just uncleared police officers but reporters managed to lay hands on pins.)

DionMay 4, 2006 10:34 PM

This whole thing models the traditional authentication problems, and how any system that is unprepared to handle unexpected inputs is likely to waste resources and stop functioning properly.

Employees and customers are conditioned to look at the dress of a person to identify whether they are in a position of authority. Shame on us, the companies clearly provide nametags and keycards for employees to use to authenticate themselves to the people and the systems. Any trust in any other item is a failing on the part of the trusting party. It's understandable that a customer might become confused, but no employee should have been affected in a way that would weaken the security of the company, the customers, or the merchandise. Similarly, some of the earliest hacks used fake authentication screens, or look alike trojan applications to violate privilege.

The response from the management and security was clearly a result of being confused or concerned that the procedures in place were not effective. Even if an employee was not fooled by the confusion, they clearly did not have faith that the other employees were trained appropriately to also see through the confusion, or the whole thing would have been dismissed from the start. When a system is built cleanly, and each part of the system knows how to properly authenticate trust, and all parts of the system properly handle suspicious events that fail the authentication test, then undue resources need not be spent trying to prevent other parts of the system from responding inappropriately.

The lack of concern by the less senior employees can be because of one of two issues. Either the employee recognized the people as not being properly authenticated (no nametag, etc.) and therefore decided that they need not perform any action that would not be appropriate for any other customer; or they legitimately do not care and never perform the appropriate checks to validate the authentication of other employees before interacting with them in a trusted manner. In the first instance, the employees acted in a manner that would have been appropriate for the management and security personell. In the second instance, the particular employee is an open hole in the security that is waiting to be exploited. The trick is determining the difference.

I agree with the idea that quick adaptation, and a message to customers over the intercom can easily put a different face on the problem. All of these are the techniques for a stronger system to authenticate people to people.

TankMay 4, 2006 10:48 PM

"Since the people did not actually try to impersonate Best Buy employees, could they be charged with any crime?"

If they had tried really, really hard to impersonate an employee would they have committed a crime then ?

Surely check out chicks aren't on the same footing as police and FBI agents when it comes to impersonation.

Jim HyslopMay 4, 2006 11:29 PM

"Somebody stole the art off of the hospital walls in my area."

Within the last week at a local hospital, two women, dressed as hospital volunteers, very nearly walked out of a local maternity ward with a newborn baby. Fortunately, some alert person raised an alarm before they got anywhere.

--
Jim

an1May 5, 2006 12:53 AM

Most interesting quote for me: "...despite the fact that her camera was the least hidden, Agent Reeves was never discovered. Perhaps being tall, blonde, and female had something to do with her camera not being noticed."

I think another factor in the manager's over-reaction is what I call "Hall Monitor Syndrome". In my high-school hall monitors were low paid adults with walki-talkies who would walk around, trying to keep order and keep kids in class. Mind you, we had a few uniformed police officers, so all the HMS would do was just keep the kids in line. It didn't seem like a very interesting or satisfying job. Because of this, they tenaciously clung to the small ammount of power and authority they had, as if to justify their job and themselves. They would often over-react to small infractions; over-asserting their authority. I'm sure there is a more precise term for this but I don't know it.

Anyway, I think another reason why the managers responded the way they did, is because it made them more important if they were dealing with a crisis -- and who doesn't want to be more important? People generally like authority, and I would imagine that people who really like it are drawn to jobs where they exercise it over other people -- like management. An over-reaction like this feels almost like management re-asserting their place in the pecking order. "Oh no, terrible crisis, but *I* am here to save the day".

AnonymousMay 5, 2006 1:22 AM

Last summer three 25 year old woman rode their bicycles *completely naked* through the old town of Zürich in Switzeland. They were even shown topless on the evening news. The police, when asked why they did not act, said officially on TV that it was obviously a prank and they did not see any cause the act. I guess they were well trained and assessed the situation correctly.

EuripidesMay 5, 2006 2:52 AM

A clever manager would have given 3-5% discount to anybody wearing a blue polo shirt and khaki trousers that day. Perhaps the guys "waiting for their girlfriend" would have bought something.

RogerMay 5, 2006 4:26 AM

A couple of thoughts.
* Maybe it's a cultural thing, but I really don't see what's funny about this. So, you scare the crap out of people by making them wonder if they are about to be robbed. That's just frickin' hilarious. If you're about 12 years old.

* I absolutely do NOT think management overreacted. Incidents where such a very large group of organised people come into your store for a prank are exceptionally rare. Incidents where a team of people come into a store to co-ordinate shoplifting, or even robbery, are far more common. As well, the sheer numbers alone are likely to be somewhat distressing if you don't know what's going on. As one of the pranksters himself put it "...both of which feature robberies and/or escapes using lots of people in identical outfits, I could definitely identify with the growing anxiety of Best Buy's security and managerial staff."

* One factor in the difference in staff response between junior staff and security/management may be that security and management spoke to the pranksters more. This is significant because the first human response to seeing a person doing something weird is to ask for an explanation, and in every case reported, the prankster's response was to tell a blatant lie (it was obviously not true that they had nothing planned, because there are negligible odds of 80 people dressing identically by happenstance.) Of course, once you detect lies, the normal response is likely to escalate from puzzlement to suspicion.

* Much is being made of the fact that customers were fooled by the (rather crudely) faked uniforms. But there are only a handful of incidents where people seem to be taken in, and that only for relatively trivial interactions. Those who interacted for slightly longer "would stop mid-question upon seeing no logo on my shirt and apologize, sometimes pretty profusely, that they thought I worked there." Later, when it became obvious that there were many people dressed in the same way (and thus it had to be deliberate), the customers, too, started to respond angrily rather than apologetically.

* A contributing factor to Best Buy's problem may be their efforts to make employees more comfortable by giving them a uniform which doesn't feel like a uniform, yet which still makes them fairly recognisable to customers. Unfortunately, the result is a uniform which is literally child's play to fake. Cost and practicality to wear mean that uniforms are never going to be as forgery-resistant as other tokens, but there are plenty of features which would have raised the barrier enough that only two or three people would have turned up instead of 80 -- even if it was really a scam. Unfortunately all such measures of which I am aware go against current corporate trends toward "less dehumanising" uniforms, so company uniforms are likely to continue to get easier to fake.

* The police response was also interesting. They generally ignored the uniformed pranksters, because a) as they correctly said, there wasn't much they could do about them and b) if I had limited resources on the ground, I would also assume that if any crime was occurring, the obvious people were more likely decoys. They also ignored the people overtly filming because, once again, there was nothing they could do, and it isn't really that odd a behaviour. On the other hand, they concentrated on the guy who had constructed a camouflaged enclosure for his video camera. Why? Because his actions are blatantly furtive; because it is obvious that he is associated with the group, yet deliberately less conspicuous than the rest; and because when asked to explain himself, he offered a pathetically transparent deception (he clearly was NOT just filming because he found it funny, because he had prepared covert equipment before coming). So they concentrated on him, then -- finding no evidence of a crime -- let him go and moved everyone on. I have to congratulate them on their professionalism and clear heads.

* Another interesting point is the unreliability of witnesses. One person claims that "Thomas Crowne Affair" was shouted over a radio by a security guard. Another says it was said in jest by a junior employee. Maybe they both said it, but it seems more likely that some details of the incident are garbled.

* Finally, it is not certain that no theft occurred. If you assemble 80 strangers at random, the odds are that three or four will be dishonest. And having a moral code sympathetic to shoplifting is probably made slightly more likely by the fact that they are self-selected by a certain rebellious spirit or disregard for authority. Add in the fact that the original idea for the hilarious "prank" came from an anonymous email, and I would strongly suggest that Best Buy does a stocktake as soon as possible.

Ed T.May 5, 2006 6:03 AM

"I hope that this is not a crime. A few years ago, I accidentally went into a Target store wearing a red shirt and khaki pants. I realized the errors of my dress when a fellow customer asked me where something was."

I hope it isn't, either. Quite often I will be shopping, only to find that my clothing is similar enough to the 'uniform' (missing only a name plate) that people will ask me for help. What is really fun is, when I have knowledge of the product at hand, if the question is about what I think of the product(s), sometimes I will gladly impart my opinions to them.

Even more fun: there are some stores where the manage appreciates this!

~EdT.

jakMay 5, 2006 8:52 AM

@roger

Congratulations. Your humorectomy was a complete success. My congratulations to your doctor.

Schwanz.

Glauber RibeiroMay 5, 2006 10:03 AM

Reading the comments i'm impressed by how many people advocated ending the joke by violent means.

MatthewMay 5, 2006 10:20 AM

To me, the key to the issue isn't about whether people are impersonating store employees, but rather about how to react when 80 identically-dressed people enter a public place and fan out across it. I applaud you backseat store managers who would recognize this as an improv comedy prank, but I have to confess that I would not have such confidence if I were either an authority or a passer-by in such a situation.

I might as well lay my cards on the table and risk having people question my sense of humor. If I were a customer in this store, I would stop my shopping and make for the exit as soon as I was aware of being in such an event, and would not rule out the emergency exit. So "playing along" isn't a great strategy for Best Buy either even if they knew that this group had no menecing intentions (which, of course, they couldn't).

Bruce, since you bring this topic up, I wonder if you have any thoughts on the best practices for it?

aixwizMay 5, 2006 10:57 AM

Since the people did not actually try to impersonate Best Buy employees, could they be charged with any crime?

Perhaps the fashion police could charge them with having poor fashion sense.

angelaMay 5, 2006 11:05 AM

As one of the participants of this prank, I'll just say that anyone who doesn't see the humor or thinks they would have felt afraid, as a customer - had you been actually in the store I think the atmosphere would have made it clear to you that no one was in any danger.

Also, Roger, FYI, I didn't steal anything. Please don't send the feds after me!

another_bruceMay 5, 2006 11:29 AM

@roger:
can you spell "anal retentive"?

"may i help you?"
"why yes. i need a $50,000 unsecured loan **right now** to meet a margin call, or else merrill lynch is going to dump my entire portfolio at a huge loss!"

i love reading stories like this. they confirm my suspicion that corporate people sacrifice some of their humanity for the false sense of security of their employment. i would have giggled even more if some of the wrongfully detained agents, who were committing no crime, sued best buy for false imprisonment and recovered actual and punitive damages.

Pat CahalanMay 5, 2006 1:09 PM

@ Roger

> If you assemble 80 strangers at random, the odds are that three or four will be dishonest.

This isn't truly a random selection. However, if you believe this to be accurate, it would explain your response to the event.

I, on the other hand, would assume that if you assemble 80 strangers at random, none of them are truly honest, 70 of them are dishonest in some significantly meaningful way, but 0 of them are likely to perform a dishonest act in any realistic time window.

Everybody's a sinner, but civilization in general works because almost all people are by default able to curb their crazy or antisocial tendencies.

Even really nutty people usually vent their bizarreness in harmless ways, like posting to blogs ;)

pegkerrMay 5, 2006 1:20 PM

My husband works at CompUSA and yes, theft is a terrible ongoing problem. I can entirely understand why the managers were unnerved by such a large, unprecedented influx of people, dressed like their own employees.

Also, I see that on the Comments page on the Mission, someone wrote: "I was talking with my sister this past weekend. She works at the Best Buy HQ here in Minnesota. She told me about this Best Buy in NY and how it was overrun with imposters. Well the mission shook cages all the way to Best Buy HQ. I guess they are working on a new policy that you cannot be in the store with similar clothing anymore if you are not employeed by Best Buy. The LP (loss Prevention) employee will be looking for situations like this in the future."

Agent ShaferMay 5, 2006 2:00 PM

What a fantastic discussion. I'm always thrilled to find web communities with such a high level of maturity and discourse.

I'd like to correct an error made by Roger in his post above. Regarding Agent Shafer, the covert camera operator accosted by police, he says, "When asked to explain himself, he offered a pathetically transparent deception (he clearly was NOT just filming because he found it funny, because he had prepared covert equipment before coming)."

I made no such claim. Where did that come from? The police immediately understood I was associated with the group, and I didn't try to fool them. One part of the conversation which you don't see in the video online is that the police ask me what's going on, and I reply that I'm not willing to talk about it. That's a tacit admission of my involvement.

Roger also says, " I have to congratulate [the police] on their professionalism and clear heads." I don't see how you could make this assessment. The two police officers I dealt with were muddled and confused the entire time I spoke with them. For those who may not know, there’s a video of this online in the mission report. They rapidly shifted topics, frequently returned to topics already discussed, constantly interrupted me, each other, and themselves, attempted to unlawfully detain me, were unsure of their goals, and understood the law less than I did. Consider the first policeman's first words to me: "What's with the lens in the bag? Why is the camera open?" That's not the dialogue of a clearheaded professional; it doesn’t even make sense. When the second officer joined the conversation, they both tried to wrestle the bag from me. That's not only illegal, that's assault.

It's troubling how the authorities attempted to deal with the situation. It's not so much that their response was unnecessary, but that it was incompetent and ineffectual.

MickyfinnMay 5, 2006 2:17 PM

Roger had a well thought out post and gets flamed. I personally find many of Improv Everywhere's missions clever and entertaining. This wasn't one of them. Go to the site and read the missions. The best do not involve a retail outlet.

StopeatingmysesamecakeMay 5, 2006 2:24 PM

With due respect agent schafer, even if roger wasn't completely accurate I think part of the point is, is it really out of line to show some trepidation about someone with a hidden recording device?

Pat CahalanMay 5, 2006 3:35 PM

@ Mickyfinn

> Roger had a well thought out post and gets flamed.

Although he makes some points, anyone who starts a blog post with "So, you scare the crap out of people by making them wonder if they are about to be robbed. That's just frickin' hilarious. If you're about 12 years old." is pretty much asking to be flamed.

If you don't want to be flamed, don't frame your post with language obviously meant to be disparaging :)

Pat CahalanMay 5, 2006 3:40 PM

@ Stopeathingmysesamecake

> is it really out of line to show some trepidation about someone with a
> hidden recording device?

The store is full of hidden recording devices, all put there by the management to guard their own agenda. Is it out of line to show some trepidation about this behavior?

I think part of Improv Everywhere's motivation is to point out a societal break between expectations. A corporation feels empowered to record events on its premises. Legitimate or not, how is this more "okay" than normal everyday citizens empowering themselves to record events concerning their actions?

StopeatingmysesamecakeMay 5, 2006 4:03 PM

>I think part of Improv Everywhere's motivation is to point out a societal break between expectations. A corporation feels empowered to record events on its premises. Legitimate or not, how is this more "okay" than normal everyday citizens empowering themselves to record events concerning their actions?


I like what IE is trying to do. But you did say "on its premises". And I really don't care to debate survailance (sp) in general. All I am saying is when IE's missions go to retial outlets, in the very least the possiblity of this happening is high with the aforementioned unpredictability of secuirty and managers. So many of their other missions seemed really fun and funny, and the common thread in them? They weren't staged in a retail outlet and the police weren't called.

It wasn't as fun or funny as it could have been. Customers mistaken for staff is an interesting phenomenon, but translating it to a fun or funny "mission" is problematic.

Agent ShaferMay 5, 2006 5:13 PM

"Is it really out of line to show some trepidation about someone with a hidden recording device?"

Certainly not, Stopeatingmysesamecake. My point is not that trepidation is out of line, or that any kind of concerned response was unnecessary. I can completely understand confusion and anxiety on the part of the management and police. But I think they were inflexible in their ideas and incompetent in their procedures, to a degree that was more detrimental to them than to us, and in a way which indicates a larger cultural problem.

Mickyfinn, I agree that Roger's post was well written and very articulate. But he leaps over logic in some places and responds emotionally, contrary to facts.

AnonymousMay 5, 2006 6:14 PM

@ Matthew

>> To me, the key to the issue isn't about whether people are impersonating store employees, but rather about how to react when 80 identically-dressed people enter a public place and fan out across it. I applaud you backseat store managers who would recognize this as an improv comedy prank, but I have to confess that I would not have such confidence if I were either an authority or a passer-by in such a situation.

As someone who has been on both sides of the fence (demonstrator, activist, crowd monitor, security officer, security manager), I'm kind of confused that people feel that they have anything to fear in this type of situation.

If you can read body language, you can see immediately whether or not they are a threat. Small giveaways like tension in the arms and face, whether they are conversing with each other or "at random," how they look at objects (as a threat or as a presence), there are lots of small cues. I've seen peaceful demonstrations turn violent, and there's always a significant change in body language and behavior prior to the escalation.

Also, while I have seen exceptions, as a general rule people do not bring their children to watch them commit a crime or engage in riot.

For anyone with people skills, it is literally the work of a few seconds of conversation to determine the intentions of the group. Angry and self-righteous, aggressive, bold, very nervous . . . as opposed to slightly nervous, having fun, self-conscious, "up" or slightly excited.

In both cases, pausing to size up the scene is essential even if you feel that you're threatened. Going out the emergency exit just adds more potential chaos and panic to the situation.

In fact I'm willing to bet that the fake employees were more likely to be approached by customers because they showed signs of animation and motivation, unlike the worker wage-slaves.

If they had dressed identically and obscured their faces, this would be cause for alarm in my book. People generally only hide their faces in a crowd when they don't want to be held accountable for their actions.

I will say this, though: if I see riot police or soldiers setting up, and I don't have a really good reason for remaining present, the streak of light you see in the background will be me getting the heck out of Dodge. So I suppose I can see why you might be concerned after all.

Ltlw0lfMay 5, 2006 9:43 PM

I am one that seems to always get asked questions by fellow customers whenever I am in a retail store, regardless to what color pants/shirt I wear (partly because I always dress better than the average person.) I usually politely nod when asked a question, immediately state that I am not an employee of the store, and if the question is something I can answer, I answer it to the best of my ability. Usually, the question comes from an older person, and often times from women (I am male.) When it first started happening, I took offense to it...but I found that it is usually easier, and safer in the long run to just be myself, be nice, fully disclose that I am not an employee and then be helpful, since doing otherwise tends to cause far more problems (I've been told by employees of stores that a customer has told them that I need a raise, since I am one of their best employees, despite my statements that I do not work there, and for the most part, folks haven't gotten angry or threatened to call the police for it.) I got threatened and told to leave by store management rather early on because I responded rudely to another customer, saying "What, do you think I work here?" The customer complained to an employee that I was being rude, and management, without asking what happened, asked me to leave (like I was a pervert or something.) I happened to be in a hurry, and didn't want to be bothered. After that incident, I know it is quicker just to comply. Now, sometimes, I've even been offered an employee discount by managers of the store for being helpful, and at least once I've had a manager give me a significant discount on something because he had never seen someone go out of their way to answer a question from another customer so politely and efficiently.

When I started thinking about it, I realized that the reason I tend to get asked questions is because I look like someone who could help, not necessarily because I work there. I've seen similar experiences to what these actors saw, I had one older man ask me something, then stop half way through his question and say, "awww, you don't work here." I said to him, "yes, but I think I can answer your question." He then completed his question, I answered it (it was a very easy question, he was looking for something I had previously bought, so I told him exactly where it was.) He thanked me, telling me that he wished others were as helpful as I, especially those three employees he walked by who were more interested in talking amongst themselves and less interested in helping him out.

If anything, this should open the eyes of those in retail, who should be asking themselves, "what are we doing wrong, since our customers are asking other customers questions instead of asking us?" I know I am not alone, as I've heard many others relate similar stories.

Had they been doing something illegal (I doubt it, though certain individuals who refused to leave after being asked could have been charged with trespass,) then I better stop frequenting retail shops, as I'll likely be arrested quite a bit in the future for just being the one person in the store that seems to be asked questions all the time regardless to the fact that I don't even look like I work there.

Freak Of NurtureMay 6, 2006 8:46 AM

I am not a store manager, and I only have experience in controlled settings such as prisons. However, I can perfectly understand the store's nervousness concerning the situation. I also disagree with Anonymous above; body language and other signals are a useful tool, but if one claims himself or herself posessed of such a mastery at reading them that one can instantly determine a level of threat well enough to ignore an otherwise suspect incident, I'm afraid I would have to maintain my skepticism.

At any rate, I'm not certain I would enact the perfect response to this, either. I believe I would simply have had my employees and security staff politely ask each "agent" to leave--a few at a time as resources permit--and escorted them to the door, where personnel would be stationed to bar reentry. As far as I know, I would not need to provide any reason at all to satisfy the customer/agent's sense of fairness in this, though I would perhaps suggest that they could be provided a district manager's contact information in the event that they should wish to complain about the quality of service they received at the store.

MatthewMay 6, 2006 12:38 PM

@anonymous: I think we're probably on the same page here. I'd probably be savvy enough to deduce that my life is not at risk (at least no more than usual :), but my concern is that I'd have to spend my afternoon at a police debriefing either as a witness or a suspected co-conspirator. Meh, this is drama that I don't need in my life; I'll buy my Buffy DVD across the street at Circuit City.

I am reminded of the history of computer viruses here. When I read about this in the past tense from the POV of the pranksters, I laugh and cheer and, yes, wish that I had been an audience member in this theater of the absurd. But it's a proof of concept. Maybe in three months, PETA will do this at a PetsMart or ACT-UP at a blood drive and they will do something other than file out when the leader gives the signal, but not something so horrific that they'll be visibly shaken about it.

Our computers block viruses that have only been used in the past to deliver amusing pranks because we don't have confidence that the bad guys haven't figured out a way to change the payload. I'm neither surprised nor alarmed that Best Buy is currently thinking of their policies in a similar fashion.

another_bruceMay 6, 2006 1:24 PM

humor is a weapon, and some of the commenters here are displaying apprehension over the potential brandishing of this weapon. a story like this is a litmus: are you an uptight suit or a mellow fellow?

RichMay 6, 2006 7:45 PM

Interesting that BestBuy is going to not allow blue top/khaki slacks into the store. The joke's been done. It wouldn't be funny next time. It's not going to happen again- at least not to Best Buy.

Now what I'd like to see is people NOT dressed in Wal-Mart uniforms standing at the entrance to Wal-Marts and 'greeting' people. Imagine, Wal-Mart asking people to leave for being friendly...

Chris HMay 7, 2006 12:31 AM

I see a two-fold problem here:

One - the relaxation of corporate uniforms to what we would consider casual wear.

Two - the inability of many retail managers to think on their feet, and react _appropriately_ rather than just figuring they have to do something "authoritive".

There are still retail outlets that require their salespeople to wear suits & ties. And yet, when a couple of dozen similarly dressed customers come in wearing similar outfits, they do not over react. If Best Buy's corporate uniform involved Suits & Ties, it is unlikely that IE ever would have pulled off this mission. I feel that Best Buy and others like them, IE, Target, are doing themselves AND their customers a dis-favor with their uniform choices. A casual uniform is one thing, but it should be DISTINCTIVE - both to avoid customer confusion, and to avoid these kind of situations. If Best Buy really wants to avoid this type of situation again, whether for humor or ill-will, it needs to make it's uniform more distinctive - put a big yellow stripe on the shirts, or something.

And as far as retail managers are concerned - the ability to assess the threat of a particular situation is a very vital skill. Too many managers become obsessed with the power they wield, or (sometimes worse) do not like confrontation. Either way, the inability to react to a situation appropriately either leads to an overblown, and tense situation, possibly ending in violence, or it gets left to run out of hand.

In my opinion, the most appropriate way for management to handle it once it became apparent it wasn't some random coincidence would have simply been to individually and politely explain the problem of too many people in blue shirts was causing confusion, and then ask each of the IE Agents to make their purchase selection and/or leave in the next few minutes. Then, if necessary, escort them out one at a time, so as not to cause a scene.

Instead, what I saw from the store management and security is an overreaction and a demand to know what was going on. Come on, given the situation, did they really need to know what was going on in order to handle it? What they had was a situation that was obviously out of the norm, and the more they tried to figure out what was going on, the more out of control they let it get, and the more they over reacted.

I learned a long time ago that you can go just about anywhere you want, as long as you act like you belong there - assuming of course, it doesn't require a badge, or a pass. If a particular place has a uniform, as long as your outfit is similar, an air of authority and confidence will get you past many who should question your credentials. Heck, in some cases, you don't even need a uniform - a suit & tie will do nicely. I have walked into convenience stores and had managers who I am a complete stranger to hand me the keys to their backrooms without questioning me. In my case, I have a legitimate reason for being their, as I work on their equipment - but I am still amazed that I am very rarely asked to provide proof of who I am - and when I am, they are usually satisified with my business card. I can't tell you how many times I've stood behind a c-store counter working on fixing a piece of equipment and been more helpful to a customer than the cashier who works their is. So I find it as no surprise that helpful individuals in similar dress to a stores personnel are mistaken for employees. Like someone else said, Best Buy should be taking this opportunity to figure out why so many people mistook the IE agents as employees, and how to make their own employees stand out more.

What I'm really interested in is exactly how Best Buy corporate is going to react to this. If their solution is to start banning people wearing Blue Polo shirts and Khaki pants from their stores is their idea of a solution, they are headed in the wrong direction. That is surely the best way to alienate more customers and even potential lawsuits. I know of at least one small amusement park who has a similar uniform for their employees - only with a big logo silkscreened on front and back - what happens when one of those employees stops at Best Buy on his/her way home from work, and is refused entry to the store? That is probably one less customer they'll have, maybe more once the story spreads to the other park employees. Worse, what if the park manager shops their for the park's computer and electronic needs? Bet he won't shop their again if he gets refused entry because he's wearing his company's uniform? See my point?

And it could get even uglier? What happens if the security guard refusing entry is white, and the park employee is black or middle eastern? What if by some strange coincidence, most of the Best Buy employees are white, while most of the park employees are filipino?

I don't particularly beleive this was one of Improv Everywhere's more spectacular performances. It was ho-hum as far as that goes. This time, however, I do think they managed to do a good job at particularly highlighting some serious flaws that are developing in our societies social mindset. In the end, I would hope that Best Buy and other companies take this event, and learn from it, and learn to cope with unfamilar situations.

Finally, for those of you who haven't read all of the IE missions - quite a few do involve retail establishments - just not to this degree. In particular, look at Cel Phone Symphony, Look Up More, Anton Chekov, and Megastore. In Anton Chekov, Barnes & Noble handled the situation quite well - they put an end to the performance without causing a scene. In Cel Phone Symphony, the Store manager got upset at first, then realized how harmless the prank was, and retracted an earlier customer banning he had made based on the event.

Look Up More is a great example of how completely different reactions from a retail establishment can be - the performance involved three different retail establishments. In the DSW Warehose, the manager completely lost his cool, and began suffering from (as someone else said) Hall Monitor Syndrome, and had the IE agents physically evicted. He got nothing out of it, except some stress and a power trip. However, in the much larger Filene's Basement upstairs, the managers expressed some concern, kept a close eye on the participants, but didn't move to stop it. And when it was over, they made some sales to the IE agents, and some favorable press for themselves. They've probably taken some steps to prevent such a performance again, but on a whole, they adapted and dealt with it, without letting it consume them.

In the end, I think IE accomplised what it set out to do: getting people to react when their daily routine is suddenly thrown out of balance in a non-life threatening way.

Chris H.

erasmusMay 7, 2006 2:03 PM

"Quite often I will be shopping, only to find that ... people will ask me for help."
It happens regularly to me too - almost everytime I visit some large stores. If I wear an old fleece or an expensive tailor-made suit, it makes no difference. Depending on the way I'm approached I may respond to the fellow customer in one of two ways:
- Helpfully and politely, while letting them know I'm not staff, or
- Patronsingly, e.g. "Sorry madam, but no, you look like you'd kill a hydrangea. I suggest you try something simple like pansies - ask that assistant over there and he'll direct you to them". To date they have always obeyed 8-)

AnonymousMay 7, 2006 2:43 PM

@Matthew: You allude to some danger posed by 80 identically-dressed people entering and fanning out through the store ... but what is that danger? Why is it any worse than 80 normally-dressed people entering and fanning out through the store (which you'd never notice except maybe as a busier day than usual)?

Likewise, @Stopeathingmysesamecake: why should I be worried about someone with a hidden recording device in a public place? Be specific.

cpriorMay 8, 2006 11:51 AM

Nice comments from you guys, good read. My additional remarks:

As an organizer, you have no clue how many people will show up. Many comments contain "80 people" but it could well have been considerably less.

As a participant, where would you draw the line -- ad hoc -- when you prepare day(s) in advance and find yourself in a big group of thinkalikes? There is a second "uniformity" aspect to it! Obviously you are not asked to do sth. illegal. Plus the organizer has credibility from former "missions".

Nuff' said. Greetings from Germany!

StopeathingmysesamecakeMay 8, 2006 12:50 PM

"why should I be worried about someone with a hidden recording device in a public place? Be specific."


Nearly all the time you wouldn't need to be worried.

But I will say although a Best Buy is "public place" (quotes noted) it is certainly private property.

I also seem to notice a number of stories about children and women being recoded by means of a hidden recording device, in certainly more vile circumstances as this. A comletely different stiuation yes. But it makes one wonder how many are not discovered, and I certainly would think the victims or families of victims of such would say they they are plenty worried.


biggfreddMay 8, 2006 1:23 PM

""Since the people did not actually try to impersonate Best Buy employees, could they be charged with any crime?"

Sure. Resisting arrest.

Ask them to leave. If they leave, problem solved. If they don't leave, use reasonable force. If they resist, charge them with assault. If they look threatening, charge them with affray. If they're in a group, charge them with riot. "

Nice try, no cigar.

You can't charge them with resisting arrest unless you're arresting them, and you can't very well do that unless you have arrest authority.

Around here, you could ask them to leave. If you tell them that with an officer as witness, nothing happens as long as they leave. If they refuse to leave, then they can be arrested for criminal tresspass. Finally, if they put up a struggle while being led out, then and only then are they resisting arrest.

From everything we were told, if they were told to leave, they left, so no crime is commmitted.

Now whether someone could file a civil suit over being denied access to a store for wearing a choice of clothes that obviously was approved by the company's dress code, that's another question.

SteveMay 8, 2006 4:50 PM

Responding to Roger, I personally know the guy who suggested the Best Buy prank idea ("Agent Slavinsky"), and can definitely vouch for the fact that he does not have the means nor the incentive to steal from a Best Buy in NY when he lives 1500 miles away from there.

I did appreciate your perspective on the way the police handled the situation, though. I had not thought of it that way.

biggfreddMay 18, 2006 5:24 PM

> I am not a store manager, and I only have experience in controlled settings such as prisons.

You might as well say "i'm used to being in an environment where 100% of the people I'm in charge of supervising are criminals.

That would easily explain the color of your viewpoint.

NateMarch 29, 2007 7:25 PM

A post above makes a good point.
A tie.
I don't often wear ties, but my 'casual' is a pair of slacks, nice shoes and a button-down shirt.
Never fails that at almost every store, apparently I am an employee because I'm not in a tee-shirt and jeans. I'm continually asked questions or 'do you work here'.
It would be interesting to recreate the option with a similar dress-style (slacks, buttondown, tie) - Would the same result occur?
Food for thought.

Jean NaimardOctober 5, 2007 7:51 AM

Regarding dress, I often wear a high-visibility safety vest when I bike, and also sometimes when I don’t (it has very practical pockets).

Whenever I go, there is always someone who mistakes me for an employee (with royal blue spandex shorts, yeah, right…). Sometimes, kids ask me whom I work for.

But the funniest reaction ever I got was at the airport. People would wonder why an employee would be obviously waiting for someone to arrive without talking to fellow employees, and employees would wonder where I’d be working (the spandex again).

JayJanuary 15, 2009 11:34 AM

What I don't get is why not go out and do something positive with all this energy? Why just goof off? There is a lot of good that could be done by folks who can afford to spend the $$ buying a blue shirt and pants and spending the day running around Best Buy causing problems. heck go volunteer somewhere and do something worthwhile get with the program people and change!

Art M.January 15, 2009 12:11 PM

Stopeatingmysesamecake said, "...is it really out of line to show some trepidation about someone with a hidden recording device?" But stopeating... the Republicans have again and again and again told Americans, "If you're not doing anything wrong, you shouldn't be worried if your privacy is being invaded." Obviously, if you're feeling trepidation about being recorded - you MUST be doing something wrong! Right???

nightmoonJanuary 23, 2009 5:00 PM

Now... If you think about it, 80 people wearing something looking like store uniforms... They are probably the LEAST likely to successfully steal something, and almost no chance of any large-scale theft. A retail sales associate isn't so much a "position of authority" as it is a role. In many authentication systems (like corporate offices and computer systems), you authenticate into a role which grants certain privilages and actions. Anything OUTSIDE the expected actions raises red flags.

Someone assuming the role of a sales associate in a store has expected behaviors, such as answering questions, directing customers, etc. One such behavior is to put things on to shelves, remove them from shelves and bring them to the front of the store. Concealing merchandise or bringing it OUT of a store is generally NOT an expected action of a sales associate, unless the object in question is very large or heavy, and then only when accompanied by someone in the customer role. And, since Best Buy has a well-known procedure of having an attendant by the door to greet people as they enter and exit, the risk is even further reduces, since the "doorman" is generally familiar with the real associates who work their shift, as well as the associate who usually relieves them.

I can see how managers might "panic" at confusion about clothing similar to associate dress code, but theft should have been the least of their concerns, since the very nature of the role they "compromised" would have raised a red flag if they had done anything even resembling shoplifting.

And uniforms are only one layer of most store security measures: cash drawers are locked, and require that cashiers authenticate themselves by password when they open a register. Visual identification is made when an associate enters and leaves the store. Cash is periodically removed from registers by managers, who must personally authenticate themselves to the register IN THE PRESENCE OF THE CASHIER, and locked in a secure cash room accessible only to specific, trusted individuals.

So, yes, I can see how the first instinct would be to panic at the situation, but once the initial panic wears off, the incident really shouldn't be all that concerning, since by its very nature, its participants would be unable to actually steal anything.

And, if you think about it further... 80 people dressed like store employees. That sort of thing would HAVE to be planned, requiring significant collusion. And anyone with the brains to put something like that together would quickly realize that they uniform-like dress would make those involved stand out. If something actually WAS stolen, those people could be easily identified by store surveillance, making the first breadcrumbs easy to find. If someone put together a heist like that, they would have to be monumentally stupid.

Apocalipz_NowJuly 13, 2009 8:36 AM

From Roger: "first human response to seeing a person doing something weird is to ask for an explanation, and in every case reported, the prankster's response was to tell a blatant lie (it was obviously not true that they had nothing planned, because there are negligible odds of 80 people dressing identically by happenstance.) Of course, once you detect lies, the normal response is likely to escalate from puzzlement to suspicion."

I totally agree with that part of Roger's statement. Every one of the agents tried too hard pretending they didn't notice the other 79 sheep dressed in wolves clothing. That scene required much more thought. The part called for aimlessly standing in the aisles with no purpose and that was lame. If each had at least purchased an inexpensive item (pens, paper, etc) and stood quietly in line, with those outfits, well..I'd buy that for a dollar !

By the way, what do you think the reaction would have been if the agents had dressed in Circuit City's signature polo color...RED, and descended upon Best Buy? Oh no CRIPS, here come the BLOODS....

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