Tips on Catching Shoplifters

Posted: August 20, 2011 in Retail Security

Tips on catching shoplifters.

First things first. Depending on where in the world you are reading this you should be aware of the “laws of the land” in your country.

It’s worth spending time talking to an experienced police officer to answer any questions you might have. E.g. what is considered reasonable force when trying to detain someone? Etc

For your background knowledge, I’m writing this in the UK but, god willing, these tips can be used in any country anywhere.

I worked for ASDA which falls under the Wal-Mart branch so I was in retail security. In the UK a person/s should IDEALLY not be stopped unless the following things are observed.

1) Selection

2) Concealment

3) Continuous and uninterrupted surveillance

4) Passing the last point of payment making no attempt to pay.

Remember these are just guidelines so there are circumstances where some of these things can and even should be omitted. E.g. surveillance in changing rooms, toilets etc but if you stick to these guideline then you should be fine.

As part of the security or loss prevention department I’ve personally always enjoyed the job for several reasons.

1)      Without a doubt it’s the most interesting department to work on. A good security department, with a good team, in a high risk area with poor equipment (E.g. just having CCTV coverage, Radios) can expect to see at least 1 incident per shift. Our 3 man teams record as 14 shoplifters in 1 shift. J

2)      Some of you may have seen the film Unbreakable, there is a certain element of truth to that story. Some people have an inner calling to jobs like this. Deep reasons I’m talking about not shallow ones. Which ill go into a little later…

3)      You learn a lot about body language. I haven’t got any stats myself I’m just talking from what little experience I have (3 Years in a high risk retail store) but most people that work in the security industry can vouch for this. After about 6 months you develop something of a sixth sense I’ve heard of other people calling it “the eye” whereby you can spot a suspicious person from 40 paces.

4)      I’ve always felt like it’s a more noble job to help keep people and assets safe.

Like I mentioned first, knowing the laws of the land is key. It’s true what they say “knowledge is Power” knowing what your legal limits are is very important. It arms you with the confidence to deliver a good if not exceptional quality security standard.

There are many reasons that people get into security, to impress girls, to steal un noticed, to use as an excuse to fight and ruck with people. I don’t consider these to be a noble cause. That’s me personally I’m not handing out judgements just making observations.

In my opinion, to have what it takes to be a good security guard there has to be a few elements present in a person.

Drive, Passion, Reason, Level Headedness, Cunning, Good communication skill, Awareness, Team and Patience, Patience and Patience.

Drive – Any security guard without drive will not be proactive. They will not be chasing down perps, they will be L.A.Z.Y . You will probably have seen them leaning on the walls, eating boxes of doughnuts typical and stereotypical but sadly a lot of truth behind that one.

Passion – I can hand on my heart say I was passionate about my work. When you are passionate and good at your job employers recognise this and give your work, opinion and word respect.

Reason – Definition “the mental powers concerned with forming conclusions, judgments, or inferences.”

“To form conclusions, judgments, or inferences from facts or premises.”

Level Headedness – You will most certainly be faced with issues that require this. Cool, Calm and collected is the key.

 Cunning– Sometimes you have to be innovative and sly in your approach. I.e. undercover

Communication is so under rated in terms of importance. There are countless times where being able to actively listen and communicate your point across can diffuse a full blown fight. Know how to be assertive not aggressive. Know when to be aggressive and not passive. Read your situation. Act accordingly.

Awareness- One of the favourite methods of theft is to distract the security guard whilst one of their mates makes off with the goods. Engage in convo by all means just stay focused on what you need to.  Also when working alone always be aware of your surroundings iv known people who have tried to sneak up behind me as I’m dealing with an incident to get a few hits in.

Patience. Patience. Patience.

You will be insulted. As most likely will your mother, wife, daughter and anyone else people can think of. Learn to block out abusive language. Mother jokes are the things I have to fight from letting me lose my temper I know that’s my switch. Know your own switch. When it comes to people trying to push your buttons let them run their mouth. One day everyone gets what’s coming to them whether it’s now or later or by your hand or God’s. It’s coming.

Team– Knowing you have good people who have your back and are on the same wavelength as you is crucial. Most places if you get into a foot pursuit with a perp once you pass the boundaries of their property will wash their hands of you. If you need to chase someone off-site try your very best to have someone with you. I’ve known of men who can handle themselves better than me doing this and turning a corner and running into a group of friends of the guy you just chased. Needless to say they got a kicking. ASDA, My old employer for example, have something called a “No violence policy”. Anytime you think someone is about to become aggressive, you have to show them a clean, clear path to the exit. No challenging, No stopping, No Questions. Just let them go.

My personal opinion on this is not to extreme on either end of the spectrum. Don’t go into work with the mentality that you’re cracking everyone’s skull you catch. It’s very dangerous to think like that. Most likely you will be the one with a cracked skull. On the flipside don’t think that if you adopt a company’s no violence policy you will have an easy day. Shoplifters talk to each other. Just like me sharing my tips on how to catch shoplifters with you, Shoplifters share tips on how not to get caught. You will find that there are communities of shoplifters that a regulars. I’ve found this most common in Heroin, Meth, and cocaine addicts.  You will catch them and they will be back so remember faces.


The reality with Security is you are putting your life on the line for an hourly wage.

Society at the moment is pretty degenerate. Kids as young as 10 in the UK are carrying knifes. Don’t rush into a potentially dangerous situation without assessing your options. I.e. your approach and if necessary your retreat method or route. In other parts of the world like the States people are able to get a hold of fire arms even easier so be careful.


There is a particular philosophy that I’d really like to push in this article which is this;

When working in the security industry you have a lot of control over what happens to people. I’ve caught countless people on bail. Meaning if I call the police on them they are going back to a cell that evening for at least a few days usually if not weeks and months. There is a famous saying that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I find to be so true in this line of work. Having this kind of “power” over people can really harm a person’s character. Arrogance in some of its most filthy forms comes out in a person when they do this job in my view. Tends to be why people hate the police.

On a smaller scale your decisions can affect peoples’ lives. Especially young kids you catch.


Helpful Tips.

Don’t treat everyone with a blanket sentence.

Every situation you deal with will be different. Every single one. In 3 Years id estimate I caught close to 1000 people and apart from the re offenders almost every case had its own twists and situations.

In general it can be said that there are 2 types of shoplifter. Those that steal out of greed and those that steal out of need.


I caught one shoplifter that just used to steal expensive bottle of alcohol to take round to the local off licence to sell at half price. They would then just use this money to buy drugs with. I’d also get couples bringing in loads of carrier bags and they would just fill their trolley bagging as they went and do their monthly shop and walk out as if having paid for it.


I once caught an eastern European guy stealing and I took him to the office and told him to empty his bag. He stole Loaf of ASDA brand bread, ASDA Beans and two cans of baby food. I felt so guilty that id stopped him.  I just took out what I had in my wallet, gave it to him and sent him off with the stuff. I could skip lunch at least for this poor guy. Now I don’t expect everyone to give hand outs to these people but trust me you’ll feel better with yourself.

 N.B. On a side note there was a book written recently on Happiness I forget the books name now. Anyway they figured out that the things that make a human being truly happy were not drinking, partying, watching sports, doing extreme sports etc but helping another human being selflessly.


As a security guard your job is to guard from theft and damage to assets and people. Knowing the reasoning behind why someone steals helps you customise your approach to dealing with each situation.


Sixth Sense, Blind Eyes

I mentioned earlier about the sixth sense or “the eye” once you develop this skill they don’t rely on just that. You will defiantly be able to notice a shoplifter walking past but there are exceptions to the case that you would never ever pick up on in a million years. Our eyes take in lots of information and a lot of it we don’t process. You can incrementally train your mind to process more information. So you might see someone steal but just due to how they look your mind wont process the action and it just gets lot in your subconscious mind.

Examples of this are as follows; I once caught a 90year old stealing, we didn’t call the police on him just made him pay for the stuff and the poor old guy had tried to steal too much for him to carry. Caught an 82Year old stealing alcohol before to. Also a smartly dressed business man stealing mobiles. So never judge a book by its cover as they say.


The main reasons I found people stole were;

  • Kids stealing to impress other kids
  • Young women coming in groups, purely to shoplift for fun.
  • To feed a drug habit



If you ignore my warning about the arrogance affecting your heart then do so at your own peril. I know many stories of bouncers and guards flexing their muscles and giving people a kicking only to be walking down the street a few weeks later and bumping into the guy they caught and he happens to be with his mates. One guy I knew had seven shades of poop kicked out of him for that exact reason. On a Bus as well in full public view. Ok, so if you have had him arrested before you’re going to be able to ID him easy but realise the possible consequences.


Helping Hand

Every single person has a chance to change. If you’re a good guard there will be times when you can give the person a good talking and in your own way sent them back on track. I live for these kinds of days. To see someone genuinely change their ways for something better is nice to see. A lot of the time you catch people it’s their first time (being caught), so they end up shaking like a leaf. A stern and forceful threat with explanation of what can happen is usually effective. Statistically every shoplifter you catch has stolen at least 125times before you got to them.


Take everything with a pinch of Salt

I’ve heard some exquisite lies in my time and ifs safe to say when you catch someone stealing it casts a shadow of doubt over the reliability of their word.  By all means listen to them but listen breaking down their story and logically listening. Listen out for contradictions and ask open questions that require them to explain. Don’t answer straight away, give it 10 seconds or so to see if they become nervous and try to explain more. I’ve caught so many people out like that that I had no CCTV footage for.  I would take long pauses and they would try explaining making endless contradictions and eventually cave under the pressure.

I used a couple of tips and tricks to catch a few people that looked suspicious on the way out.

I used to wait for them to walk out and walk up to them and at about 5-10 meters away say Excuse me Sir or Miss. The people that had stolen would ALWAYS run. The innocent people would just stand there and say Yeah? But you look like a fool doing that you say. Well that’s when id drop the line

Do you have the time? Works really well for me.

Threats on your life.

For me “I’m gunna come back and Kill you” were a daily occurrence and surprise surprise no one ever came back except once. A group of about 8 kids in their late teens early twenties after I stopped one of their friends came looking for me in my store. I was walking around oblivious lucky for me they were directionally challenged and didn’t know left from right so when they asked a colleague where I was they went left not right so never bumped into them. I have also known of a guy saying he was going to come back to a guy I used to work with and he came back and was popping off shotgun rounds in the car park calling him out. Which, he didn’t, of course. But these are a rarity. So long as you don’t go off on a power trip you should be ok.


Two people I Never had compassion for though were

People that stole Alcohol and,

People who got their kids to steal or came shoplifting with their kids.

One trick people like to do is bag up stuff and send the kid outside with it, they follow them and turn to see if their being followed and if they aren’t they just walk off.


High Risk Areas

Having only worked in retail, i can only advise to the high risk areas in a retail store.

Meat Section, Clothing Section, Alcohol Section, Razor Blades, Batteries, Chewing Gum.

Also watch out for

B.O.B – Bottom of Basket. Always check the bottom of a basket as they go through checkouts.

L.I.S.A – Look In Side Always. In hollow items like bags sometimes people like to hide small items so always open up the items.

Prams/PushChairs. Under the baby seat and on the back by the handles are all hot high risk areas too.

Make use of the Civil Recovery process that some places use. Our store did. Civil recovery is basically the store fining the thief and depending on how much the items they stole are worth the fine can mount up. Some people we processed received fines of £3000 or $5000. Basically the civil recovery process allows a person to pay the fine without receiving a criminal record.

In the Uk things like how long each colleague spent with the suspect in terms of wages can be added to the fine as well as Individual DVDs used as evidence to the police. Unfortunate for a suspect that is dealt with by a high paid manager. They might end up paying his mages for the day.


Under trolleys just above the wheels. Hot favourite to place Crates of Beer.

On the Hook at the back of trolleys. People like to hang clothes and pet food there.


Here are some other tips i got from online but are not my own


Guilty knowledge” is a trait that all shoplifters have in common. Unlike ordinary customers, shoplifters know they are thieves. That knowledge drives them to think and act differently from honest shoppers.

In turn, alert store employees who know what to look for can often spot a shoplifter.

Here are various behaviour traits and other clues that law-enforcement officials say can be tip-offs to shoplifting:


* Nervous Behaviour.

Shoplifters are constantly on guard. They glance about nervously and look over their shoulders. Unlike most people, they are very aware of who may be watching them. Their attention is focused away from themselves rather than on merchandise immediately at hand.

* Avoiding Others.

Shoplifters tend to shun store personnel and other shoppers. Privacy means less scrutiny. They tend to move in low-traffic areas and prefer to “shop” when few other people are in the store.

* Taking Offense.

Since shoplifters fear scrutiny, they are sensitive to the attention of sales personnel. When you try to help them, they may become irritated or act rudely. They may even display annoyance if you stand in the same aisle. Legitimate shoppers, on the other hand, don’t object to attentive service.

* Aimlessness.

Shoplifters typically seem indecisive. Lacking a real shopping list, they often wander through the store, lingering here and there, stopping only to handle merchandise. They fold and drop things and may seem clumsy and overly interested in the items they handle. They are looking for the right time to conceal the merchandise.

* Bulky Baggage.

To help them steal from you, shoplifters often use items such as large purses, umbrellas, newspapers, and packages. The packages are known as “boosters boxes,” which may even be gift-wrapped. Other tricks include the use of fake casts and slings, wheelchairs, and baby strollers.

* Concealment Techniques.

A common shoplifting tactic is to wear loose fitting or oversized apparel, which may seem out of place or out of season. Baggy clothing helps shoplifters conceal stolen clothing underneath their own. Female shoplifters have been known to leave a store with merchandise tucked under their skirts. Hairdos, bras, girdle, and devices that make a woman look pregnant are also used to hide loot.

* Ploys.

Shoplifters sometimes work in teams. Together they fabricate distractions and diversions. They may fake an argument with store personnel or among themselves. One may monopolize an employee’s time with pointless questions. Another may topple a display stand or stage a phony medical emergency.

* Cash Register Flimflams.

Pay attention to price tags. Shoplifters sometimes switch them from low-cost to high-cost items. Also, you should require proof of purchase on returned items. Shoplifters may try to get a refund on an item lifted from your store.

Store employees should know what to do when they spot someone suspected of shoplifting. Here are guidelines:

* Simply offering the customer assistance may be enough to scare a would-be shoplifter away.

* If a customer who you are certain has lifted an item appears at a cash register to pay for other items, ask politely if he or she has forgotten to pay for the merchandise in question.

* Call the police immediately when you are sure that someone is shoplifting. Although attempting to detain a suspected shoplifter is lawful in most states, it can be dangerous.

Authorities recommend that you check with your local and state law-enforcement agencies to determine what the laws in your area say about challenging or apprehending suspected shoplifters.

Though they can be most clever, shoplifters often give themselves away.

If you have any questions, comments or feedback on this article please feel free to contact me


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