Self-Checkout Criminals Are On the Rise

Beneath the bland veneer of supermarket automation lurks an ugly truth: There’s a lot of shoplifting going on in the self-checkout lanes. Of course, those who work in loss prevention prefer to call it “external shrinkage.” Self-checkout theft has become so widespread that a whole lingo has sprung up to describe its tactics. Ringing up a t-bone steak at $14.99 a pound with a code for a variety of produce that sells for 49¢ a pound is called “the banana trick.” If a can of coffee leaves the conveyor belt without being scanned, that’s called “the pass around.” Now, “the switcheroo” is more labor-intensive. That’s when someone peels the sticker off something inexpensive and places it over the barcode of something pricey. They just have to make sure that both items weigh about the same to avoid triggering that pesky “unexpected item” alert in the bagging area. How common are self-scanning scams? It turns out that it’s very common. In fact, Voucher Codes Pro — a company that offers coupons to Internet shoppers — recently disclosed that nearly 20% of the people they surveyed admitted to having stolen at the self-checkout in the past, and more than half of those people said they scammed the system because detection by store security was unlikely. Additional studies conducted by criminologists found after auditing a million self-checkout transactions over the course of a year — totaling $21 million in sales — that nearly $850,000 worth of goods left the store without being scanned and paid for. Whether out of social responsibility or frustration with shrinkage, some retailers, including Albertsons and Vons, have scaled back or even eliminated self-scanning checkouts. It’s gotten so bad that some police departments will no longer respond to shoplifting calls for boosts amounting to less than $100. Unfortunately, self-checkouts tempt people who are already predisposed to shoplifting by allowing them to rationalize their behavior. Most shoplifters are, in fact, otherwise law-abiding citizens. Other shoplifters are simply thrill-seekers. Some thrill-seekers become BASE jumpers or Mafia hitmen, while others settle for swiping Brie and organic tomatoes from Trader Joe’s.