Petty Crime for the 21st Century

The way we shop has changed – along with the way we steal.

My mother shopped every day, sometimes more than once. She would take her shopping bag and buy just what she needed for the meal or recipe – a couple of slices of this, a few scoops of that. This type of shopping made it difficult to steal because you were served by a counter assistant on a one-to-one basis.

Stealing relied on sleight of hand skills and misdirection. You could ask for something on a high shelf, for example, and while the assistant wasn’t looking, items could be pocketed. You could use an accomplice too – this helps with misdirection, and while there were no CCTV cameras or smart tags, the risk was direct and personal.

I know of people who are nostalgic for such days; they miss the thrill, the adrenaline rush, the risk of shame and humiliation. Even when there was no criminal intent, this was present; the shop assistant knew exactly what you were buying – pornographic material, condoms or ointments for thrush.

Perhaps because of the personal interaction element, the embarrassment factor or the need for privacy, shopping changed, and along with it, the crime.

Supermarkets introduced baskets, trolleys and check-outs. The thief only had to put items in a pocket or otherwise avoid the check-out till. Shopping was much faster and less embarrassing, but so was shop-lifting.

It is possible that the losses, at least to some extent, would be offset by the savings in reduced staffing levels and relying on technology like CCTV.

But people are inventive, and with each new innovation in shopping comes an innovation in crime.

Today, we have the Self-Service-Checkout.

Thieves must be delighted with this – it makes everything so much easier and less risky. If caught, one can simply say it was an innocent error.

George Charles of VoucherCodesPro.co.uk carried out a survey of 2,634 people aged 18 and over about their shopping habits and use of self service checkouts.

About 19 per cent said they stole from Self -Service-Checkouts – and the majority said they stole regularly.

Helen Dickinson, Director General of the British Retail Consortium (BRC), said: “Theft from stores pushed the direct cost of retail crime up to £511m last year, 166 per cent higher than five years ago.”

Of course, this generates more vigilance – usually in CCTV at this area, but what if there was a way to go undetected by CCTV?

Well, it seems that there is a way. I was recently told of a popular method to rob a store blind while appearing to do everything properly and honestly.

Here’s how it works:

You do not scan your expensive steak, instead you turn the barcode from the scanner, and weigh it on the scales instead. You select a cheaper item – so instead of paying for steak, you pay for apples or a potato or something about the right weight. This allows you to put the item into the scaled bagging area, where it will be expected.

Nothing looks amiss; on the CCTV, you have scanned everything, and no alarms have been sounded. You pass through the door scanners too – you have a receipt, so you can even return items later. Everything appears above board.

So what can the shops do?

The answer to that might just be from Amazon – the new Amazon Go shops.

This idea seems a way to stop stealing – but on the other hand, it removes ALL the people – these stores do not need the same numbers of CCTV and store security personnel – and no till operators. Even if they are not foolproof (remember with each innovation comes innovation in crime), the saving in not paying staff might make it worth it.

I saw this with Uber recently too – they are having problems with trades unions and worker rights to the extent that they are heading down the driver-less car route.

The summary upshot and bottom line is that – as a result of petty crime over the years, the drive has been away from employees toward technology. The removal of people is what is going on. Less jobs, less face-to-face interaction, less embarrassment, less risk, and fewer thrills. Online shopping, cashless, credit cards and mobile smartphones, have heralded a new future where people are diminished in favour of technology.

I’m not sure I can make sense of this future – fewer jobs for people usually means fewer employed earners that are shoppers. We are being sold a future where we can shop without a queue and get a driver-less taxi, but can that be true? Will this only be for those few with jobs?

And what of those people with no jobs? Will they create an alt-society? Or will they innovate new criminal ways as before?

Only time will tell.

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