CCTV in the Retail Environment

March 1, 2004
Shoplifters take great pains to be invisible to staff, but CCTV is a great way to keep an electronic eye on potential thieves.
Editor's note: Liz MartĂ­nez' Retail Security column will run quarterly throughout 2004. This first article is excerpted from Chapter 4 of Ms. MartĂ­nez' recent book, The Retail Manager's Guide to Crime and Loss Prevention: Protecting Your Business from Theft, Fraud and Violence (2004, Looseleaf Law Publications).

Each year, retailers lose almost two percent of their profits to shrinkage. Most of it walks out the door via the five-finger discount. The first line of defense against shoplifters is floor employees—the eyes and ears of the store. Because shoplifters come in all shapes, sizes, races, genders and ages, floor staff are in a position to spot someone who doesn't fit in with the store or the area, or whose body language signals an intent to steal. (More information about the employee's role in retail crime prevention can be found in the abovementioned book.)

An effective way to combat shrink—and make sales—is to ensure that the staff provides excellent customer service. Shoplifters don't like attention. If they get it, they're likely to leave for a more fertile stealing ground. But salespeople can't see everything at once. An effective tool in the retailer's crime-prevention arsenal is the use of electronic surveillance equipment, especially closed-circuit television.

Electronic Eyes and Ears
CCTV systems are good tools both for deterring thefts and for assisting in the apprehension and prosecution processes. They serve to deter shoplifters, who cannot remain anonymous if a CCTV camera captures an image of them as they are committing a theft. For the same reason, stores with visible CCTV systems are less likely to be targeted by burglars.

Camera Options
Cameras can be mounted on the walls and ceilings and can be visible or hidden within a dark-colored dome. They can be set to run continuously, recording the goings-on of the store and displaying the images in real-time on monitors in the security office of a large store, or simply recording them in time-lapse fashion.

More sophisticated cameras can pan, tilt and zoom in on particular areas that a security officer or staffer wants to see in more detail at any given time, such as a furtive customer or a suspected dishonest employee. The images recorded by one camera at a time, or by several cameras simultaneously, can be projected onto one monitor screen or onto a number of monitors, depending on the size of the store. In a smaller store, theft deterrence through the use of CCTV can be achieved by displaying the images on a monitor that is visible to employees and customers alike.

Common sense must be employed when it comes to keeping the cameras clear. Nothing should be mounted on the ceiling or high enough on the walls to interfere with the field of view—regardless of how perfect the designer might insist a decoration looks right in front of the camera. Once the camera is blocked, it is effectively rendered useless, and store security is compromised.

Special Situations
In an establishment in which discretion is important, such as an upscale boutique, or when an investigation is underway, covert camera systems can be employed. Also known as "nanny-cams" for their popularity among parents who want to clandestinely monitor their children's caretakers in their homes, these small cameras can be placed virtually anywhere. About the size of a credit card, the miniature devices, which are hidden inside dolls, clocks or mannequins or in any number of other places, record and transmit images to a monitor.

CCTV cameras can also be hooked up to detection devices for after-hours surveillance. When a motion sensor is triggered, the system begins recording and simultaneously dials a programmed telephone number and transmits images over the telephone lines to a designated off-premises monitor. In this way, alarm companies or store owners can get a look at exactly what's happening inside the store. This type of system can also be linked to EAS systems to record any movement in the area of a triggered EAS device.

Foiling Felons with Faux Cameras
CCTV technology can be costly for smaller retailers. If theft deterrence is the only object and the budget to accomplish it is miniscule, that goal can be reached in some measure through the use of fake cameras or domes. The cameras or domes are affixed to the walls or ceilings where the real McCoys would be placed. Potential shoplifters who think that the premises are under surveillance might seek greener, unprotected pastures.

The key to being successful with these fake contraptions is to purchase cameras that look real. A camera that resembles a kid's toy will fool no one and may actually increase thefts when the word circulates around the criminal community that the store is not employing detection devices. Many pretend cameras on the market look real and have wires that extend to plates meant to be attached to the wall. Some of them even swivel at intervals, as though someone were monitoring the store and moving the camera around to get a good look.

Tools of the Theft Trade
No matter how modern a store's surveillance equipment may be, shoplifters think up ways to circumvent sophisticated technology. The electronic component is only one half of the equation. The other half is the human factor. Good training is important for anyone who will be keeping watch via a CCTV system. If a worker doesn't know what to look for, the most expensive device in the world is worthless.

Many shoplifters employ booster bags or booster boxes—containers used to conceal items thieves are stealing, or "boosting." A booster bag or box is often a converted shopping bag or box that sports the name and logo of a legitimate store, or is wrapped to look like a gift.

Booster bags can be lined with aluminum foil or another metal in order to prevent sensors from detecting the presence of activated EAS tags inside when the shoplifter removes stolen items from the store. Booster boxes are sometimes fitted with a false bottom or a spring device so that when the box is set on top of or next to a desired piece of merchandise, the item is "swallowed" by the box.

Other devices used to conceal merchandise include baby carriages, which can be modified to include a large empty area underneath the baby's mattress where products can be stashed. Often, there is no baby in the carriage, or the "infant" is really a doll.

Booster coats are fitted out with many pockets and hooks the wearer can use to conceal merchandise. Booster bloomers consist of a pant-like garment that is worn under loose clothing and that ties around each leg, providing a large pocket in which clothing and other goods can be concealed. Similarly, professional shoplifters, or crotch carriers, can perform what is known as the crotch walk, which consists of concealing merchandise between the thighs and under a long dress or coat and walking out with it. Amazingly, proficient thieves can walk off with very heavy, bulky items in this manner.

There is no limit to the devices that crafty shoplifters will think up to separate stores from their merchandise. Keeping an electronic eye on the floor is one of the best techniques for retail crime prevention.

Liz MartĂ­nez is the author of The Retail Manager's Guide to Crime and Loss Prevention: Protecting Your Business from Theft, Fraud and Violence (2004, Looseleaf Law Publications, 800-647-5547). She is a member of ASIS International and is an instructor at Interboro Institute in New York City, a two-year college that offers a security management degree program. Ms. MartĂ­nez can be reached through her Web site at