Shoplifting on the Rise in Bad Economy

From the New York Times:

Police departments across the country say that shoplifting arrests are 10 percent to 20 percent higher this year than last. The problem is probably even greater than arrest records indicate since shoplifters are often banned from stores rather than arrested.

Much of the increase has come from first-time offenders like Mr. Johnson making rash decisions in a pinch, the authorities say. But the ease with which stolen goods can be sold on the Internet has meant a bigger role for organized crime rings, which also engage in receipt fraud, fake price tagging and gift card schemes, the police and security experts say.


Shoplifters also seem to be getting bolder, according to industry surveys.

Thieves often put stolen items in bags lined with aluminum foil to avoid detection by the storefront alarms. Others work in teams, with a decoy who tries to look suspicious to draw out undercover security agents and attract the attention of security cameras, the police said.

“We’re definitely seeing more sprinters,” said an undercover security guard at Macy’s near Oakland, Calif., referring to shoplifters who make a run for the door.

A previous post listed the most frequently shoplifted items: small, expensive things with a long shelf life.

EDITED TO ADD (1/13): Maybe shoplifting isn’t on the rise after all.

Posted on December 29, 2008 at 2:52 PM24 Comments


Carl Bussjaeger December 29, 2008 3:25 PM

Of course, some stores make it easy for shoplifters. Like the Wal-Mart in New Hampshire that put out a DVD display, then put a rack of backpacks right next to it.

Bob December 29, 2008 3:51 PM

In my schooldays I used to work in a large clothing store which sold suitcases. It was standard procedure to open up every case and check every pocket (of the case) at the checkout – we caught more than a few people.

Seth Breidbart December 29, 2008 5:34 PM

If the ratio of arrests to bans (and not-caughts) is constant, then the total shoplifting increased by the same fraction as arrests. On the other hand, if stores are a lot more likely to arrest this year, there might even be a decrease in actual shoplifting.

No one December 29, 2008 5:42 PM

Bob– your comment about checking the pockets of suitcases is interesting.

I also check inside any containers before I buy them because I often find items in there that were hidden by others. No idea if it is because the person who put it there is planning to come back later, or if it is due to children playing in the store, but I have seen this happen many, many times.

papa zita December 29, 2008 7:50 PM

No one:
During my years, I vaguely knew a semi professional shoplifter. The putting expensive items in a cheap box or container, then having a teammate buy it is a common occurrence. So is the distraction method, which can work very well. The bold grab and dash is hardly what anyone would do unless young or high. Usually too long a distance to run unless confederates are waiting at the door with a car.

David Harmon December 29, 2008 8:42 PM

The “previous article” has a rotted link, to the “100 most shoplifted items” page.

Mary December 29, 2008 9:58 PM

I’m a bit surprised by the statement “shoplifters are often banned from stores rather than arrested.” The NYT doesn’t provide a good source for the statement. My experience of retail work isn’t in the US, but as I understood it, in Australia the police were called for all shoplifters caught.

Of course, the police and store might then decide not to prosecute, but I don’t recall any procedure for merely banning someone from the store rather than involving the police.

Sean December 29, 2008 10:32 PM

As someone who works in retail loss prevention on a part-time basis (sometimes for the extra cash, sometimes for the adrenaline) , there is a noticeable increase in retail theft. And as the economy worsens, offenders have become more aggressive: running when confronted, attempting to start fights, becoming hostile in the office, etc. Before, most offenders were cooperative as they just wanted to have the situation over with. Now, their desperation worries me each time I attempt to stop someone. Obviously, the number of credit and gift card frauds are also on the rise as identity theft becomes easier and technology for cloning gift cards becomes more available. The world of crime is becoming more and more scary …

David December 29, 2008 11:06 PM

@Seth: Bravo! A man who gets it!

This reminds me of one of my favorite ad tactics: “Save up to 15% or more!”, which establishes an upper bound of regular price (0% off) and a lower bound of free (100% off). Zero information; the listener fills in the blanks.

billswift December 29, 2008 11:24 PM

The best one I’ve heard of is where the packaging from a muzzleloading rifle was found behind some other stuff near the beginning of deer season.
Apparently, someone sliced open the plastic packaging, tucked the rifle under their coat (or whatever) and just walked out.

Tim December 29, 2008 11:51 PM

I work at a liquor store where shoplifting has become much more of an issue over the year, especially around the holidays. The police are often not called because nothing ever comes of pressing charges. (Most shoplifters have lengthy criminal records for theft, drunk in public, open container, etc.. and never get anymore time than it takes to go to trial). There has even been one incident where I was assaulted by a shoplifter, provided the police with a license plate number and was told they had already received complaints about the driver of the vehicle. Again nothing happened. Jails and prisons are overcrowded in this country (2,000,000+ in the U.S.). There is not enough room to lock up even fairly serious offenders, forget people who steal a $50 bottle of Patron. The best tools we have are our numerous security cameras and vigilent staff.

Adrian December 30, 2008 12:57 AM

I’m fascinated by the NYT editors who like printing Handy Hints for criminals. Considering shoplifting? If you slip the merchandise in an aluminum foil bag, the storefront alarms won’t detect it. A decoy accomplice can distract the store detective, so neither of you get caught. And many stores will just ban you from the store if you do get caught, so you’re not even risking arrest.

It’s like when they were advertising oxycontin a few years back. Back when I shared an office with people who subscribed to the NYT, I remember seeing articles at least once a week about how to make it give a better high than heroin (what to do with the pills, or what to mix them with.) I got to wondering about possible kickbacks, because the drug trade is so obviously profitable. But shoplifting seems like a complete waste of money, so it doesn’t make even that little bit of sense.

Anonymous December 30, 2008 7:45 AM

Razor blades and aspirin.

They’ve been the most shoplifted things since before crack cocaine. Small, easy to conceal, and easy to sell.

On George Square in Glascow, around the time Elvis died, there used to be a man there every day with a stack of ‘Safety Razor Blades’ in one hand, shuffling the stack like playing cards while hawking them: “Razor Blades for ten pence a pack!”.

I haven’t been there in thirty years, I suppose he’s not there anymore. Great town, BTW. Would live there.

partdavid December 30, 2008 2:17 PM

@ jt

Thanks for the link, it’s not off-topic at all and recognizes very much the theme of much of Bruce’s writing about considering the agendas of people involved in making decisions.

Victor Bogado December 31, 2008 5:48 AM

@seth, I would tend to believe that only the worst cases would be reported to the police, as it wastes everyone time. So I would estimate that the number of less severe cases would grow more.

On the other hand a growth a significant growth of the less severe cases could raise the threshold on reporting, making the store report less severe cases.

So what I am saying? Even I am not sure, it is hard to estimate those things.

Arghblarg January 2, 2009 12:45 AM

A more tech-savvy shoplifter could just buy a thermal printer and, with some research, forge receipts prior to shoplifting from a particular store:

1) Buy 1 each of items (2-3 of another item to see how multiples are represented on the receipts);

2) Take receipt home, analyze and re-create with a future date/time the # of items the planned heist will harvest;

3) Re-visit store shortly before the pre-printed fake receipt’s time/date, and harvest the # of items matching said fake receipt;

4) Hang around the check-out tills with items a bit (to establish presence on cameras ‘buying’ said items);

5) Stroll out and, if confronted by security, show the receipt and ‘prove’ items were bought.

How many store security staff, on seeing a receipt that ‘looks good’, actually go and verify the till records?

As with all such crimes, the key is to not be greedy; keep quantities low, receipt totals below a few hundred, and never re-visit the same store/chain within a short period.

Phillip January 2, 2009 8:34 AM

“The problem is probably even greater than arrest records indicate since shoplifters are often banned from stores rather than arrested. ”

I’d tend to disagree with this. There’s always been a ratio of unreported shoplifting crime. Do we have any reason to belief or any indications that this ratio has changed? If not then we can reasonably say that actual shoplifting has increased at the same rate as reported shoplifting.

Adduul2 January 7, 2009 5:41 AM

I recall an L. M. Boyd trivial column stating the most shoplifted items are food. Not necessarily the expensive stuff like slabs of meat and luxury foods, but the basic commodities instead. This implies an underlying hunger problem if you ask me, which is why I have resolved never to report someone shoplifting basic foodstuffs as they may be ineligible for food stamps or public assistance between jobs.

nocomment July 15, 2009 7:30 AM

I worked as Security in a retail store for over 5 years until March this year when I quit for good. I’ve always roughed up guys before when they stole stuff and did not want to pay and wanted to fight me. The last guy I met was brazen enough to walk out with a PS2 in his hand. ( He went over a counter for this one) I followed him outside and grabbed the PS2 from him but he punched me squarely in the head. I should have realized something then but being way bigger than the guy i tried to tackle him. The next thing i knew I was waking up in the hospital with my Jaw wired SHUT.
I ended up with a broken Jaw and 3 broken ribs. i found out later that he was a professional MMA fighter.

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