Lentis/Shopkeepers and Shoplifters: Technology and the Changing Balance of Power


Shoplifting is the act of stealing merchandise offered for sale at a retail store. The crime is a major problem for shopkeepers, costing retailers in the U.S. an estimated $14 billion in 2012 [1]. Despite innovation in shoplifting prevention technology over the past decades, the cost of shoplifting as a percentage of annual retail revenue has remained relatively stable [1]. Shoplifters continuously develop their own technological and behavioral innovations as a response to improved shoplifting prevention systems. The antagonism between the two sides manifests as an arms race, where each side constantly evolves and adapts to the technological adaptations of the other.

Shopkeeper’s Perspective on TechnologyEdit

Retailers commonly make use of simple tools such as anti-shoplifting signs threatening prosecution to deter shoplifters. Shopkeepers have utilized other technological advancements to develop more robust theft prevention systems over time. Listed below are a few of the major technological innovations in use today:

EAS TagsEdit

Electronic Article Surveillance (EAS) tags are physically attached to merchandise and deactivated or removed by clerks at checkout. If a shoplifter attempts to smuggle merchandise out of the store with an activated EAS tag still attached, it will be detected by sensor gates at the exit and sound an alarm [2]. In the past, retailers relied on floor staff to keep a check on shoplifters. The presence of greeters and and other store personnel at the entrances and exits of the store functioned as a visible warning to potential shoplifters. Sensor gates monitoring for active EAS tags now serve a similar purpose.

RFID technologyEdit

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags function very similar to EAS tags and allow shopkeepers to keep track of inventory. Merchandise is tracked in a database and can be displayed to store personnel in real-time. Shopkeepers in the past had relied on cashiers knowledge of merchandise pricing to check for price switching. The location of the checkout station has also been moved toward the exits, forcing customers to pass through before exiting. Stickers and signs notifying consumers of the RFID system in place are usually prominently displayed outside shops to act as a visible deterrent to shoplifters.

Security CamerasEdit

According to the National Association of Shoplifting Prevention, 73% of adults do not plan ahead to shoplift [3]. Customers are triggered to shoplift when a desire for an item is met with opportunity. A successful prevention is one that removes this sense of opportunity [4]. Mirrors were installed by shops to achieve this purpose before video camera systems became economically feasible. Security cameras display a live stream of different areas of the shop to both to store personnel and consumers currently in the store, further deterring any shoplifters.

Private Alarm Company ContractingEdit

Companies, such as Alarm.com, have developed smart systems that let shopkeepers interact with their stores security system remotely. Instead of hiring security guards themselves, shopkeepers contract alarm system companies to install automated security systems for the entire store [5]. Shopkeepers can lock different parts of their shops through click of a button and can also stream videos from different parts of the shop. Signs from security companies are usually placed throughout the shops.

Shoplifter's Perspective on TechnologyEdit

"Although a few shoplifters are professional thieves, the vast majority appear to be amateurs in that their activity is sporadic, they typically have no known history of criminal activity, and they steal for their own consumption rather than for resale."
—Dena Cox, When Consumer Behavior Goes Bad: An Investigation of Adolescent Shoplifting

Cell PhonesEdit

Cell phones have become convenient and accessible tools for shoplifters. An accomplice can instantly warn a shoplifter through phone calls or text messages when security guards are approaching. Since many customers use cell phones when they shop, shoplifters will not get noticed for using cell phones to communicate. [6]

Social MediaEdit

Facebook provides the world's largest social networking service[7]

Social Media provides a convenient way for shoplifters to coordinate organized attacks such as flash mob robberies. A flash mob robbery is an organized form of group theft targeting a single store. A massive group of people enter a store, steal items and leave before the police or store personnel have time to respond. The limited number of employees in the store are unable to stop all of the shoplifters from getting away due to the sheer size of the mob. People share the name and location of targeted stores through social media. There are also thousands of videos on YouTube that explain how to steal merchandise from major retail stores. [6]


People search for all kinds of ways to steal on the Internet. You can find ways to steal without getting caught with step-by-step instructions, ways to remove security tags from merchandises and build equipment that blocks the security signal and even how to act if you get caught.

eBay logo

Online MarketplaceEdit

Auction houses and classified advertising sites give shoplifters an easy and legal way to sell stolen items. Before online marketplace is available, shoplifters usually sell those items to their family and friends. Now they can legally sell these things online to people who have no idea where these items came from. [6]

Aluminium foil bag used for shoplifting

Booster BagEdit

Booster Bag is a popular tool that shoplifters use. A booster bag can be any ordinary shopping bag, backpack or containers whose inside is lined with a special material, typically multiple layers of aluminium foil. [8] A booster bag is essentially a Faraday cage. Which provides electromagnetic shielding, so that the security tags inside the bag may not be detected by security panels at the store exits. [9] With a booster bag, a shoplifter can steal dozens of items with very little effort.

The Changing Balance of PowerEdit

The implementation of new technology on either side causes a reciprocal technological adaptation on the other. Because this conflict is in the context of a broader societal environment, the power struggle between these two sides often times has unintended social effects and consequently brings in new players and participants.


Paying consumers participate in tilting the balance of power between shoplifters and shopkeepers. EAS is a common theft prevention technology employed by shopkeepers. Implementation of such alarm systems may reduce store losses in the form of shoplifting, but have an unintended effect on regular paying consumers.

Shoppers are less likely to return to a store if they have been subject to errant EAS alarms [10]. Shopkeepers are therefore faced with the dilemma of combating shoplifting without adversely affecting their profits from paying customers in the process. This can have an overall effect of shifting power back in the direction of shoplifters.

Customers may also find video surveillance and other shoplifting prevention technologies offensive and an invasion of privacy [11]. This discomfort can negatively impact store patronage and hurt sales, forcing shopkeepers to balance their desire for maximum security with the wants and needs of their paying customers, even if it ultimately ends up shifting the balance of power slightly in the direction of shoplifters.

Security CompaniesEdit

Security companies have a vested interest in promoting the use of theft deterrent technology by shopkeepers, and may exaggerate the risk shoplifters pose to shopkeepers in trying to sell their security system.

Law EnforcementEdit

Shoplifting is a crime. Shoplifting Offenses for most states usually include two parts:

  1. Willfully concealing or taking possession of merchandises;
  2. The intent to deprive the items' rightful owner of possession of the items, without paying the purchase price;[12]

Every state has a civil law under which any person who commits shoplifting can be held civilly liable to the store owner (or the owner of the merchandise) for money damages stemming from the incident. [13] For example, according to Virginia Theft Laws, shoplifting charges will be determined by the value of the stolen merchandise. If the value of the good stolen is $200 or more, that shoplifter will face a grand larceny charge in Virginia. If the value of the good stolen is less than $200, that shoplifter will face a petit larceny charge in Virginia. [14]

Business owners have the right to use surveillance cameras and confront the person who commits shoplifting. In most states, store owners have the right to detain an individual with a probable cause of shoplifting. [15]

Julian Assange August 2014


According to Lentis chapter Hacker Culture, black hat hackers violate computer security for personal gains. With internet being the number one shopping destination [16], hackers benefit by shoplifting information, such as credit card information, passwords, and etc. from online stores. The fight on this non-physical layer prevails 24/7, and to prevent shoplifting/hacking new participants, such as FBI, NSA, and software developers, have come into play. Software developers endeavor to make fool-proof webpages, but are still outdone by hackers. To restore the balance back to normal, FBI and NSA track the hackers who have gone beyond the law.

On a macro level, different nations can also be viewed as shopkeepers and shoplifters. Nations retail information for their citizens, which can be stolen by other nations. WikiLeaks is an example of nations "shoplifting" information.


Technology is used as a proxy for the agendas of opposing parties. We can see a similar phenomenon arise in the competition between athletes and dope testing. Despite advancing test methods, some athletes still find ways to gain an advantage by developing new drugs or finding ways to escape detection. Likewise, although, weaponry has evolved, nations still continue to go to war with each other. The agendas of participants remain the same, even if the medium of interaction changes.

Shoplifters respond to some technological innovation implemented to deter shoplifting by implementing some technological or behavioral innovation of their own. The booster bag, for example, was developed by shoplifters in response to the implementation of RFID and EAS alarm systems by retailers. Flash mobs organized over the internet were a response to security camera systems. The antagonism between shoplifters and shopkeepers gives rise to a technological arms race which keeps the balance of power relatively stable despite constant innovation on both sides.


  1. a b 2012 National Retail Security Survey. 2012. retrieved from https://soccrim.clas.ufl.edu/2014/02/20/2012-national-retail-security-survey-has-been-released/
  2. Herzer, G., “Magnetic materials for electronic article surveillance”, Journal of Magnetism and Magnetic Materials, 254-255, p598-602, 2003.
  3. National Association of Shoplifting prevention Statistics. 2014. retrieved from http://www.shopliftingprevention.org/what-we-do/learning-resource-center/statistics//
  4. Are Traditional Video Cameras Effective at Preventing Retail Theft and Shoplifting? 2010. retrieved from http://www.supercircuits.com/resources/blog/do-video-security-cameras-prevent-retail-theft-and-shoplifting/
  5. Setting the Security Standard. 2009. Cassie del Pilar. retrieved from http://www.alarm.com/about/media/securityStandard.aspx
  6. a b c How Has Technology Influenced Shoplifting. Fred Tarasoff. retrieved from http://www.evancarmichael.com/Retail/3869/How-Has-Technology-influenced-Shoplifting--The-Good-The-Bad-and-The-Ugly.html
  7. New York Times (2011). Facebook is the world's largest social network. Retrieved from http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/business/companies/facebook_inc/index.html.
  8. Toobin, Jeffrey (2009). The Best American Crime Reporting 2009. Ecco. p. 278. ISBN 0061959219.
  9. Prabhakar, Hitha (2011). Black Market Billions. FT Press. pp. 107, 250. ISBN 0132180243.
  10. Consumer responses to electronic article surveillance alarms. 1993. Scott Dawson. retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0022435993900117
  11. Shopper Attitudes Toward Shoplifting and Shoplifting Preventive Devices. 1979. Harris, James. retrieved from http://connection.ebscohost.com/c/articles/4667901/shopper-attitudes-toward-shoplifting-shoplifting-preventive-devices
  12. http://criminal.findlaw.com/criminal-charges/shoplifting.html
  13. Soplifting Laws. David Goguen. retrived from http://www.criminaldefenselawyer.com/crime-penalties/federal/shoplifting.htm
  14. http://www.offendersolutions.com/state_law/virginia%20theft.htm
  15. Business Owner's Rights for Shoplifters. Pat O'Connor. retrieved from: http://smallbusiness.chron.com/business-owners-rights-shoplifters-37093.html
  16. Deloitte annual holiday survey highlights. 2014. retrieved from http://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/pages/about-deloitte/articles/press-releases/shoppers-add-pinch-sparkle-dash.html/