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.

Suspected shop stealers

If you suspect that someone in your store is intending to shop steal, keep the person under observation. The person must be seen (or recorded on CCTV) to actually take the item. OBSERVE ALL THEIR ACTIONS.

You and your staff should always be mindful of your safety and be aware that an offender could be carrying a concealed weapon.

Call the police and report exactly what you saw and the action you took.

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 – eg. walked in direction of…, got into a vehicle (note registration, description of vehicle, other occupants), etc.

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