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There’s nothing like the holidays to bring sneak thieves out to your local mall.

December 01, 2008  |  by Joseph Petrocelli - Also by this author

Police Presence

It is generally agreed that extra police patrols have little effect on shoplifters. If you are on patrol, be alert to the indicators of shoplifting. Pay extra attention to any car parked in the fire lane, near an exit, or any car backed into a parking space near an exit, especially if the operator is present and the car is running. This may be the staging of one of the most common types of high-end shoplifting—the "grab and go"—where an opportunistic shoplifter spots valuable items in a store display, waits until the sales staff is distracted, then dashes in, grabs a handful of products, and runs to a waiting car. It often happens too fast for staff to respond.

You can proactively deter a "grab and go" by suggesting that high-end items be removed from the area near the door. If clothing is displayed near the door, recommend that the store alternate the directions of the hangers. This makes it impossible to grab a large number of garments in a short period of time.

Patrol officers will want to be aware of the tools of the shoplifter's trade. When making a motor vehicle stop or pedestrian contact, look for a shopping bag that is old, soiled, or wrinkled; anything that can be taken into a store for the sole purpose of concealment. Look for bags from stores out of the area or items in a bag that do not match the store on the bag. Be suspicious of anyone in possession of a baby carriage with no baby; many times baby carriages are altered to facilitate concealment.

Look for anyone overdressed for the season. Shoplifters love bulky clothes with numerous pockets to conceal loot. Also be aware that shoplifters will cut the bottom lining of jacket pockets to allow items to be concealed in the lining of the coat. Look for anyone carrying an umbrella in sunny weather. Umbrellas are strong, durable, and sealable. Many small items, such as electronics, jewelry, etc., can be concealed in an umbrella.

Most police treat shoplifting as a nuisance offense. Many times this is because the victim (the retailer) treats the offense as a nuisance, but a University of Florida study revealed that U.S. retailers lost $40.5 billion to shoplifting in 2006. At some point, retailers are going to consider those losses more than a nuisance. When the retailers look to us for assistance, we should be ready with a plan to reduce shoplifting.

Det. Joseph Petrocelli is a 20-year veteran of New Jersey law enforcement. He can be contacted through

Know Your Shoplifters

Shoplifters fall into three broad categories.

Thrill seekers—This is the largest category of shoplifters. These are the young, bored teenagers who hang around malls. They lack productive or interesting outlets for their energy. Whether it is boredom, opportunity, or peer pressure, these teens will pilfer smaller items that provide immediate gratification.

Professionals—Many times professionals commit their criminal acts in groups. They are well-trained criminal enterprises, where different members have specific roles, including distracting, staging, concealment, product removal, or driving. Their effects are devastating because they target high-end, expensive items.  

Street-level drug users and drunks—They steal to sustain their substance abuse habits. Members of this group are commonly apprehended because they are known to store employees; their clothing and hygiene differentiates them from other shoppers; or their stealing techniques are crude.

Determining which offender plagues a community will help you formulate a directed response to the problem.

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Comments (1)

Displaying 1 - 1 of 1

prosecutorx @ 12/15/2008 3:13 PM

Excellent article. With your permission, I'm going to use it in our training of our new prosecutors. They are the ones who handle almost all the shoplifting cases (which, of course, may be an example of your point that we in law enforcement sometimes don't take this crime seriously enough).

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