How to Identify a Shoplifter?

Who is a shoplifter?

A shoplifter is a thief who poses as a customer, enters a place of business, and takes merchandise without paying for it. The items may be kept, sold to associates, or returned to the store for a cash refund. Shoplifting, also known as Retail theft, is differentiated from pilfering, which is defined as an employee stealing merchandise from the store in which they are employed. Shoplifting is classified as a non-confrontational economic crime, in that the thief steals without directly confronting the victim. However, shoplifters tend to flee or some become violent when confronted. Shoplifting costs retail stores billions in lost revenue, which is passed on to the customer.  Store sales staff need to be alert to potential shoplifters and promptly contact store Loss Prevention to surveil the suspect and take appropriate action. Alert employees can also deter shoplifters.

How to Identify a Shoplifter?

What are Shoplifter Motives?

The motive for shoplifting tends to be: 

  • Wanting what they can’t afford to purchase legitimately
  • Acquisition of items to sell or trade for drugs, or items to return to the store for a cash refund for drugs
  • A thrill or rush. 
  • A dare. The shoplifter’s delinquent associates have induced them to shoplift in order to gain respect and be accepted by the group. 
  • Those who do not grasp that the items in the store must be paid for, and cannot just be taken (Children or the mentally ill) 

Shoplifters will typically adamantly deny that they stole anything, even when confronted with the item on their person, or with video surveillance footage. They will often rationalize that store has so much stuff they won’t miss this one thing, or I am entitled d to a free gift seeing I have bought so much stuff there. 

15 Tips on Profiling Shoplifters

Stereotyping and profiling are different concepts.  Stereotyping is making a quick judgment about someone based on their group affiliation, in accordance with our past knowledge of this group’s members. It is a cognitive filtering mechanism that is used to assess other people, and understand them better.  Profiling is a more in-depth analysis of someone based on empirical evidence that people with certain appearance and demographics tend to have consistent behaviors.  Be aware that behavioral profiles are a weak means of  determining if an individual is in the group you are trying to identify, and  also weak at predicting human behavior. Despite this, they are widely used, and are best employed as a way to narrow down a subject pool.  This is important to note so that false positives are not generated, or that innocent people are wrongfully accused. This will open the business owner to liability. 

Some identifiable behaviors of shoplifters are outlined below. 

  1. Loitering
    Someone who enters a store and wanders without selecting any items may be browsing or killing time while they wait for someone else or they could be trying to convince themselves to steal something. 
  2. Excessive self-soothing or grooming behaviors
    Adjusting clothing, running hands through hair, picking or biting nails, shifting from foot to foot, are all behaviors which betray anxiety. Some people are just anxious, and others are anxious for reasons other than they are in your store to shoplift. 
  3. Avoiding eye contact
    If someone looks away when an employee looks at them, this could be shyness, or an attempt to avoid identification. 
  4. Dress inappropriate for the weather
    This needs to be regarded with suspicion. Someone wearing bulky clothing on a hot summer day could be intending to stash and conceal items. They may have even darker purposes, such as hiding a weapon. 
  5. Use of props
    This includes big open shopping bags, backpacks, or baby carriages that can be used to hide items.
  6. Distraction and teamwork
    When people enter a store trying to appear as though they are not together, one may distract an employee with questions or conversation, while the other shoplifts. 
  7. A customer in an employee’s only area
    Employee only areas are typically well marked. Someone who intrudes in those areas may be lost, or looking for something to steal.
  8. Taking merchandise into a restroom
    Again, most store restrooms are clearly marked NO Unpaid Merchandise. Someone who ignores this may be intent on removing items from packaging and hiding them.  
  9. Opening packages
    This can be a curious customer who wants to examine an item closer, or a shoplifter removing items from a box for easier concealment. 
  10. Watching employees instead of looking at merchandise
    Maybe they are admiring someone’s beauty, or they are looking for an opportunity to steal. 
  11. Using mirrors to watch employees
    This is very suspicious behavior.  Customers in a store do typically not surveil employees. 
  12. Lurking in corners
    This is another suspicious behavior in which someone is trying to avoid cameras. 
  13. Someone who appears to be under the influence of drugs and alcohol
    Shoplifters will use drugs or alcohol before shoplifting in an effort to relax. Habitual drug users may also be under the influence or withdrawing when they shoplift. 
  14. Looking slovenly and unkempt, dirty, underweight
    In other words looking like a dirt bag. Habitual petty offenders tend to neglect their appearance. Shoplifting is one more criminal act they commit. 
  15. Avoiding Cameras
    Trying to cover their face from cameras, or completely avoiding them, wearin a hoodie or dark sunglasses.


In this article, as well as elsewhere in this series we have commented on the weakness of behavioral profiles. They should not be relied on definitely or exclusively. All of the indicators above are ambiguous and open to several interpretations as to someone’s true motives. Someone who displays several of the points in the profile should be regarded with suspicion. Store employees should be alert for every customer that enters the store, both to provide good service and make sales, and to guard against loss. This must always be tempered with courtesy as not to drive away legitimate customers.