Spot the Thief

If you're new to retail or you're just opening your first store, the thought of dealing with shoplifters can be a daunting one.  Don't fret!  Here are some simple things you can do to spot potential shoplifters.


Safety First

The first and most important rule is to look after number one.  Your merchandise can probably be replaced.  You, on the other hand, can't, so take measures to protect yourself and your employees.

Have a written policy for dealing with shoplifters:

  • Make sure you know exactly what your rights are when it comes to apprehending and detaining suspected shoplifters
  • Ensure your staff know what and what not to do when faced with potential shoplifters.


All Shapes and Sizes

Sorry to tell you this, but thieves no longer sport striped jumpsuits and carry bags with 'SWAG' written on the front.  Today's shoplifters come in all shapes and sizes, from the cheeky young rascal to the nice old lady that lives up the street.  This can make spotting a them somewhat more difficult.


Petty or Pro?

There are two types of shoplifters you should be on the lookout for:

1. The Amateur Thief

Typically steals smaller items, which can be anything from a bar of chocolate, to clothing, DVDs or food.  Amateurs usually work alone, but may work with a partner-in-crime.  They may appear nervous and will be ready to flee at any time.

2. The Professional Shoplifter or Organized Gang

'Organized Retail Crime' (ORC) gangs or rings are professional shoplifters that work in teams and steal to order.  These pros will walk into a department store, load up their carts, and can walk right out of the front door as bold as brass and completely undetected.


Tell-tale Signs

Here are some of the more obvious things to look out for:

  • Appears nervous or twitchy, continually scanning the store
  • Comes into your store on more than one occasion, but doesn't buy anything
  • Seem more interested in store employees than your merchandise
  • Randomly picks up items and may hover over them
  • Spends a long time looking, but has no basket / cart
  • Wears 'unseasonal' clothing, e.g. thick jackets when it's warm outside
  • Wears dark glasses, hat or other items to help conceal their identity
  • Walks awkwardly (may mean he/she is concealing stolen goods)
  • Takes multiple items into changing rooms, but leaves with different / fewer / no items
  • Asks to use the washroom - a great place to go and ‘stash’ their loot
  • Enters the store in a group. A couple create a distraction while the others steal goods.

The rules are by no means 'hard and fast', and just because you think someone is exhibiting some of these traits, it doesn't necessarily make them a shoplifter.

One of the keys to catching shoplifters is to get a good description of what the suspect looks like that can be given to store security guards and/or the police; height and weight; what were they wearing; a vehicle description and tag if possible; along with any unique physical features like tattoos or piercings or anything else that may help police catch the thief or thieves.


IMPORTANT! Professional shoplifters are generally more aggressive and ready to use force.  Some may even be armed, so be extremely cautious when apprehending a person or group that you may think is stealing from your store.  If in doubt, get a good written description of the people you think are acting suspiciously and call the police.



Shari Walters,
KMSP FOX 9, Minneapolis
Federal Bureau of Investigation - Press Room, Headline Archive. Organized Retail Theft
Wikipedia Organized Retail Crime


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Organized Retail Crime Goes Online [Video]

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