To Catch a Thief

Inside the loss-prevention industry.

Girl, shoplifting

If Winona were here, she’d be toast. Not to mention the 23 million other non-celebrity kleptomaniacs—that’s one in 11 Americans—who shoplift. “Here” is the National Retail Federation’s 30th annual “Loss Prevention Convention.” Not so long ago, “loss prevention” was known as “security,” and the job appealed primarily to former cops and military personnel. As one conference speaker joked, these security men applied a basic principle to collar crooks: “If they looked like they had it, grab them.” That Wild West attitude ground to a halt in the 1990s, when apprehended suspects began to sue stores for coercing false confessions and for engaging in racial profiling. At the same time, the retail industry put pressure on the loss-prevention field to protect stores more efficiently. In response, loss prevention became become both kinder and gentler in its approach and more technologically sophisticated in its methods.

And not a moment too soon. With more than $30 billion annually lost to “shrink,” as retail theft is called, America is in the midst of an epidemic. While the overall level of shrink has remained steady for the last 15 years, shoplifting itself is on the rise. Shoplifting occurs about 550,000 times a day, which adds up to $25 million a day in losses. That figure represents just a fraction of the problem, since current estimates suggest that the average shoplifter is caught only one out of 49 attempts.

The prime goal of the Loss Prevention Convention is to share strategies to “solve shrink” or to “shrink shrink,”—no Freud jokes please—but the Winona-style “kleptomaniac,” or “lone booster,” isn’t on anyone’s radar. To loss-prevention professionals, garden variety shoplifting now seems banal, a constant in American life. Asked about it, they tend to revert to fatalism and cite the 80-10-10 rule: 10 percent of the people will never steal from you; 10 percent always will, and 80 percent will if given the chance.

Loss-prevention professionals now prefer to focus on employee theft, which, at 47 percent, represents the highest percentage of the “shrink” pie. In response, new job titles have been created and old ones beefed up. A Starbucks “data compliance analyst” compares receipts from different stores to see if one employee is (for example) voiding 20 receipts every day at 3 p.m. for 20 grande lattes, which might mean she’s skimming from the top, so to speak.

In the cavernous exhibition hall in San Diego, more than 100 technology companies displayed their Big Brotherish wares. One cutting-edge strategy is to link various technologies to each other and to the Internet. Many stores now combine digital closed-circuit television and smart Electronic Article Surveillance tags (those hard, plastic tags that are affixed to clothing). Digital television gives such a sharp picture that a security guard looking at a monitor in Kansas can see what time it is on your watch in New York, and smart EAS tags can inform the store of the time and place when a shopper removes an item from the shelf. Taken together, these technologies help prevent something called “sweethearting,” a kind of extreme discounting, whereby an employee thief passes her friend through the register with a T-shirt and a cashmere sweater and scans only the T-shirt.

The irony is how technology, which has helped catch shoplifters ever since Arthur Minasy first designed surveillance tags in his garage in 1966, only seems to encourage would-be thieves to steal more vigorously. Shoplifters have figured out how to combat most of the technology that loss-prevention uses—for example, aluminum foil-lined “booster bags” can disable the electronic surveillance tags. And, once a shoplifter beats the system, a stealing euphoria can set in, resulting in a mini crime spree.

When a thief is actually caught, the loss-prevention industry doesn’t bring down a heavy hand. It shows its kindler, gentler side. Loss-prevention professionals prefer to use a “non-confrontational” style of interviewing (and they never use the word “interrogate”). The logic is that if you say, “Did you steal the shoe?” the suspect will deny it, whereas if you ask indirect questions, you will get not just the truth about the shoe, but the truth about every shoe the thief has stolen during the last six years. This soft approach helps unmask the career criminal.

Despite all of these innovations, the thieves are only getting bolder. The best-attended session at the convention detailed, Law & Order style, how a team of loss-prevention professionals and law enforcement brought down a 23-member Latin American shoplifting crime ring. Chances are, however, that this was only a temporary victory. The organized retail criminals are already savvy about technology (they sell their stolen goods on eBay), and they are apparently not averse to a little old-school espionage. The police searched the home of a retail gang member recently and found a troubling item: a filled-out invitation to the Loss Prevention Convention.