Shop Stealing Prevention and Detection

The nature and extent of the problem

Shop stealing is a major problem for retailers. The Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) has estimated that the total cost of shop stealing is around $810 million per year, or $110 per incident. This is based on an estimated 7.3 million incidents of shop stealing per year (just over 40 per retailer). However, the true extent of the problem is unknown because not all incidents are detected and/or reported to police.

Shops vary in their vulnerability to shop stealing, depending on:

  • the location of the shop
  • the type of goods sold, and
  • the shop layout and display features.

The fact that shop stealing is so widespread is perhaps not surprising. Shops contain new goods which are attractively packaged and temptingly displayed. In most shops, customers are permitted to handle the goods themselves, and present those they wish to purchase to the shop attendant at the cash register. This self-service sales method can provide an opportunity to conceal goods in clothing or bags.

There is no typical profile of a shop thief. Offenders vary in terms of their age, gender, ethnicity and social background. They also vary in their level of experience, motivation and the method of shop stealing used. Individuals who shop steal due to a psychiatric condition known as kleptomania are comparatively rare. In most cases, the motivation for shop stealing is to obtain some financial advantage.

Shop Stealing is Stealing

Shop stealing is a form of stealing. Basically, any person who dishonestly takes any property, without the consent of the owner, and with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of that property, commits the crime of stealing (see Tasmanian Criminal Code, section 226).

Professional shop stealers may attempt to evade detection by ‘dumping’ items they were intending to remove from the store after being observed by store staff or a security camera. In these circumstances a person may still be guilty of stealing (shop stealing), provided that the property was moved from one place to another, and at the time of moving it the person had the intent to permanently deprive the owner of that property. Evidence from the store staff, or security camera, that the shop stealer was seen to remove the property and attempt to hide it before ‘dumping’ it may be sufficient to establish the necessary intent.

Common methods used by shop stealers

The most common method of shop stealing is for the offender to leave the store either carrying or wearing the stolen merchandise.

Shop stealers can remove items from the store by:

  • Hiding the items in bags, umbrellas or prams
  • Hiding the items underneath a big coat
  • Trying on clothes and then wearing them out of the shop underneath their own clothes
  • Using an accomplice to distract the shop assistant’s attention away from them while they remove the items, and
  • Switching the price tags of items so that they pay less.

Telltale characteristics of shop stealers

Shop owners and employees should carefully observe any customers who behave suspiciously.

Telltale characteristics of shop stealers include:

  • Carrying an item in their hands while they walk throughout the shop;
  • Appearing nervous and declining assistance;
  • Spending more time watching the sales staff than looking at the merchandise;
  • Wearing overcoats or raincoats when the weather does not call for it;
  • Asking to use the toilet and/or spending a lot of time in the fitting rooms;
  • Having an unusual walk, tugging at their sleeves, adjusting their socks or rubbing the back of their neck; and
  • Keeping the sales staff busy getting items from the back stockroom.

What can be done to reduce the risk?

A number of steps can be taken to reduce the risk of shop stealing, by making it more difficult to steal items and/or increasing the likelihood of detection. Not all of the practical suggestions outlined in this brochure will apply to your business. It is important that you consider all of your circumstances and then choose the preventative measures which are the most appropriate for you.

Establish a policy

Establish a policy for the prevention of shop stealing and make sure that all staff are aware of it. The policy may include some of the following practices to reduce the risk of shop stealing:

  • Never leave display cases unlocked.
  • Check the number of garments taken in and out of fitting rooms, and remove surplus clothing from fitting rooms after each customer.
  • Display dummy goods or empty cases only (e.g. CDs).
  • Only display one of ‘paired’ items.
  • Ensure that customer service areas are adequately staffed to reduce customer waiting time.
  • Provide receipts for all purchases and conduct spot-checks of receipts at the store exit.
  • Close shopping bags and staple receipts to the outside of them.
  • Avoid exchanging returned items without a receipt. If an exchange is considered appropriate, the preferred option is to arrange credit – not cash.

Train your staff

Ensure that your staff are adequately trained and supervised.

Staff should be trained to be alert for shop stealing and aware of the procedures for responding to shop stealing incidents. In particular, staff should be attentive to customers and be on the lookout for anyone wearing bulky clothing, carrying large bags or with other ways of concealing items (e.g. in a pram).

Display appropriate signage

Signage should make it clear that shop stealing is a crime and that it is store policy to prosecute offenders.

A number of stores also display signs which advise customers that they may be asked to show the contents of their bags when leaving the store. If a store wishes to invoke the right to check customer’s bags, the signage stipulating this must be prominently displayed at the point of entry, to ensure that customers entering the store are aware that these are conditions of entry. However, it should be noted that a retailer can only ask to see the contents of a bag and does not have the right to touch the contents, or put their hand in someone’s bag.

Physical Security

Most physical security measures work best in combination rather than in isolation. For example, video surveillance can work effectively in conjunction with security mirrors, good lighting, signage, and alert, well-trained staff.

Measures include:

  • Installing convex mirrors in corners to minimise blind spots, and one-way mirrors between stock/office areas and the shop floor.
  • Displaying high-value goods in glass cabinets. Good quality locks should be used, and access to keys strictly controlled.
  • Installing video surveillance cameras to detect/deter thieves. Good quality equipment should be used and signs should be displayed alerting potential thieves to the use of the cameras.
  • Using electronic article surveillance, i.e. the fitting of electronic tags to items. Exit gates detect any tags which have not been deactivated and sound an alarm.
  • Attaching dye tags to clothing to reduce the rewards of theft. If the tag is not properly removed the garment will be ruined by the release of dye.
  • Threading cables through high-value items.

Shop Layout

The layout of a shop can contribute to shop stealing by reducing the capacity of staff to supervise customers and making it easy for thieves to gain access to high-value items. Possible ways to reduce the risk include:

  • Elevating the cash register/counter area to enable staff to view activity in the shop.
  • Creating clear sight lines in aisles and minimising the height of displays.
  • Placing the cash register and counter as close to the exit door as possible so that customers have to pass a staff member when leaving the shop.
  • Ensuring that customers do not have direct access behind the counter and that public and private areas are clearly defined.
  • Providing good, even lighting.
  • Placing goods away from entrances and exits.


In some areas, an early warning system has been implemented whereby nearby businesses notify each other, and the police, if they suspect there are shop stealers working in the area.

Approaching a shop stealer

If you suspect that someone in your store is intending to shop steal an item, the following actions are recommended:

  1. Keep the person under observation
    The person must be seen to actually take the item.
  2. If you believe the person has stolen an item, follow the person out of the store
    You should be accompanied by another staff member where possible.
    Don’t let the person out of your sight.
  3. Confront the person
    Remember, you do not have the power to search a person or their bag/s, you can only ask them to show you the contents of their bag/s or to produce an item which you believe has been stolen. One staff member should take responsibility for talking to the person. BE STERN BUT VERY POLITE.

Introduce yourself and explain that you wish to speak with them about items that they may have taken out of the store without first making payment. It is best to ask the person to accompany you back to the store at this stage rather than requesting them to produce any receipts they may have for the merchandise. This may potentially aggravate the situation. The following is a sample dialogue you may consider using:

“My name is………I am a staff member of ……… You have just left our store and I believe you have goods that have not been paid for. I would like you to come back with me to the office where we can resolve this.”

  1. Most shop stealers won’t argue – if you are CONFIDENT, FIRM & POLITE.
  2. If the person does create a commotion, say “I believe you have property you have not paid for and I am going to call the police.” Be FIRM & POSITIVE. Say “I would like you to come back to the office where we can resolve this”.
  3. If the person refuses to accompany you back to the store you should closely observe his/her description and any other relevant details that will assist the police in identifying the person and investigating the incident. For example, you may be able to follow the person to a car and record the registration number.

Be mindful that you do not have the power to detain a person unless you initiate an arrest. While any person has the power under the Criminal Code 1924 to arrest a person they find stealing, Tasmania Police does not recommend this option unless the employee is a security officer who has completed nationally recognised training.

Always be mindful of your own safety and be aware that an offender could be carrying a concealed weapon. If you do exercise the power of arrest, you must bear in mind that any force you use in order to make the arrest must be reasonable in the circumstances. You may be called upon to justify the use of any force in court.

Employers have a Duty of Care to provide a safe work place for their employees. If an employee is injured while trying to arrest an offender, they may have a civil claim against their employer, particularly if the employee is inexperienced and/or has not received any security training.

Returning to the Store Office

If the person agrees to return to the store with you, make sure that when walking back to the store, one staff member walks beside the shop stealer, and the other walks behind. (The staff member walking behind can ensure that the shop stealer doesn’t throw the stolen item/s away on the way back to the store.)

Once in the office

Step I

Ask the person to place on the table all the items bought and/or stolen from the store, including any receipts. Again be stern but polite in speaking to the person. Insist that the items be presented.

Step II

Call the police – Don’t be swayed by the excuses given. Let the police take the required action. Report to the police exactly what you saw and the action you took.

IMPORTANT: Do not leave the person unattended in the office (this could create an opportunity for the person to dispose of the stolen goods).

Make Notes about the Incident:

You should make notes about the shop stealing incident as soon as possible after the event as you may be required to give evidence in court about the incident at a later stage.

The notes should record:

  • What you saw – including what was stolen and from where.
  • Relevant times – including the time you first saw the person, the time they left the store and the time the police arrived.
  • What the shop stealer did next – i.e. started to leave the store.
  • What you did – i.e. followed the shop stealer out of the store and then approached him/her.
  • What you said to the shop stealer and how he/she responded – e.g. the shop stealer agreed to accompany you back to the store, or refused to do so and you took mental and then written notes of his/her description.
  • What happened next – e.g. the shop stealer accompanied you back to the store and/or you phoned the police.

What the police will do

The police have not witnessed anything. You are the witness. Therefore, the police rely heavily on your observations to determine if there is sufficient evidence upon which to base a prosecution, or at the very least reasonable grounds to arrest the shop stealer.

The police are required by law to ‘caution’ a person they believe has committed an offence. The ‘caution’ is: ‘You are not obliged to say or do anything unless you wish to do so, but whatever you say or do will be recorded and may be given in evidence. Do you understand?’

If the shop stealer is an adult, they will usually be arrested and charged and then identification samples will be taken (e.g. DNA, fingerprints and photographs).
The police have limited powers of arrest in relation to juvenile offenders who are more likely to be dealt with by way of a diversionary procedure such as a formal caution or community conference.

The police may need to take possession of the shop stolen items to establish the offence. The offender may be shown the items during an audio visual interview, and asked questions as to how he/she came to be in possession of those items.
The items may then need to be retained by the police for use in court. The police will issue a receipt for any property they take. Often police will simply photograph the items and immediately return them to you.

If the person is charged with stealing (shop stealing, the staff member/s who
witnessed the incident will usually be required to provide a written statement to the police. The staff member/s may also be required to attend court, or asked to participate in a youth diversionary procedure.

The police are also required to give you an Offence Report number. This allows you to track the progress of the shop stealing incident by contacting your local police station.


State Community Policing Services – (03) 6173 2627

Emergency Calls – Triple Zero (000)

Tasmania Police Attendance (For non-urgent matters) – 131 444

Crime Stoppers (anonymous) – 1800 333 000

Victim of Crime Service – 1300 300 238

Other Business Crime Prevention Resources

Bag Inspections –
Australian Government Crime Prevention Initiatives –
Australian Institute of Criminology –
Tasmania Police –

The information in this publication is made available on the understanding that the Department of Police and Public Safety and the Crime Prevention and Community Safety Council (and their respective staff ) shall have no responsibility or liability whatsoever for loss, damage, cost, expense, harm, or injury incurred by reliance on information contained within this publication. This includes loss or damage, cost, expense, harm or injury incurred by the possible omission of information. Furthermore, the information contained within the publication is considered true and correct at the time of publishing. Users of this publication are advised to make their own assessment of the information and should consider seeking counsel from their own professional advisors with respect to its application.


2004 Shop Stealing is Stealing – A Guide to Prevention and Detection