The Eyes Have It

Remember when surveillance cameras produced jerky, black-and-white images — that is, if someone remembered to change the tape and if the tape hadn’t already been recorded over — that showed faceless blobs shoplifting in, burglarizing and, God forbid, robbing your store?

Video screen and globe camera overlook checkout lanes at Park City, UT, state store.

Times have changed.

The New Hampshire State Liquor Commission has been expanding the use of surveillance camera systems and upgrading its equipment to digital systems in its state stores.

The digital systems now in place have already proved their worth.

When one of those systems captures images of a shoplifter, for example, “we can put on quite a little slide show” clearly showing the person in question in the act of stealing, said Peter Engel, director of store operations.

Dennis Kellen, deputy director of operations for the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, has had the same experience. “We buy pretty decent cameras. If we see a shoplifter, we will be able to recognize them,” he said. Furthermore, the Utah DABC can easily produce a CD, containing the images of the crime, to hand to the police. “Because of the cameras, most of our cases are easy for the police to deal with,” said Kellen. “When you’re caught so clearly on video like that, it’s pretty cut-and-dried. Most plea-bargain.”

The Utah DABC uses Toshiba Surveillix recording systems in all of its 38 state stores. The eight or nine cameras in each store are “just little smoke-dome cameras. You don’t need anything specific; any will work,” explained Bill Garner, auditor. These cameras, which are motion-activated, meaning they record only when triggered by motion, send their images to the Toshiba system, a digital video recorder that, in turn, is connected to the DABC’s headquarters via the Internet.

Some of each store’s cameras watch the checkout, to prevent employees from stealing money from the cash registers, among other things. “I love saying it; I want to believe it: the cameras keep honest people honest. They keep people away from temptation,” said Kellen.

Systems Work As Deterrent

And the camera systems do seem to be helping to do just that. Kellen reports that the total shrinkage rate at the Utah state stores — from shoplifting, employee theft and breakage — is less than one-tenth of one percent of total sales, far lower than the retail industry’s average. According to the National Retail Security Survey from the Security Research Project at the University of Florida, the average shrinkage rate among retailers of all types in 2005 was 1.59%. (The average shrinkage rate reported by liquor, wine and beer retailers in the survey was 0.58%.)

In New Hampshire, the Liquor Commission emails the images from its digital surveillance systems. “If a shoplifting ring hits one store, we will email the images to all the other stores and to the police,” said Engel. The fraud unit of the New Hampshire Liquor Commission’s Bureau of Enforcement will even post the images on a website called New Hampshire’s Most Wanted ( There are similar websites for Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Other law-enforcement agencies as well as the general public can examine these images and possibly identify the suspects.

Advantages of Digital

Today’s digital recorders, which record their images on hard drives, either built into the recorder itself or on the hard-drive of a personal computer, allow the systems to be more automated. A digital recorder can continuously record, without human intervention. It can be set to store its images on its hard-drive and, when it runs out of space, to record over the oldest images first. The system used by the Utah ABC records about five weeks’ worth of images. If there’s a discrepancy in a store’s inventory, the store’s manager or someone at headquarters can search the surveillance record.

And searching that record digitally is a lot easier than doing so with videotapes. “With digital equipment, you can look up the exact time — from 8:00 p.m. to 8:10 p.m., for example,” said Gus Montes de Oca, chief of the operations division for the Montgomery County Department of Liquor Control in Maryland. “If you tried to find that with video tapes, it would take you three or four hours.”

Digital systems can also send their images, via secured transmission, to headquarters to be stored or someone at headquarters can dial in and either retrieve recorded images or even watch what is happening in a store in real-time.

The New Hampshire Liquor Commission’s enforcement officers have orchestrated “controlled buys,” when they suspect an employee has been stealing. Undercover officers, often using marked money, go into the store, to the suspected employee and make a purchase. Meanwhile, someone at the commission’s main office, such as Peter Engel, director of store operations, is watching via the surveillance system, in real time. “We get the images, time and date stamped, and can burn them onto a CD,” said Kyle Metcalf, who, as lieutenant of operations for the New Hampshire Liquor Commission’s Bureau of Enforcement, heads up a four-person fraud unit devoted to retail crime in the commission’s 74 stores. “It’s pretty overwhelming evidence.”

Digital recording systems also include security features governing who can view and who can delete images. For example, in Utah, store managers can view and search, but not alter, the images from their surveillance systems.

Coming Soon to a Camera Near You

The technology continues to develop by leaps and bounds. In the quest to combat the threat of terrorist attacks, companies have developed surveillance systems that can be programmed to recognize certain kinds of behavior as suspicious, such as if a person enters a certain area of the tarmac at an airport or if they pick up a certain product. Surveillance systems are being developed that, using watch list databases of, for example, suspected terrorists, can identify those individuals when they come into the camera’s view. Systems are also being developed that can send alerts, even containing images of the suspicious incident itself, directly to someone’s personal digital assistant (PDA).

But camera systems don’t have to be expensive to be effective. In many cases, it’s a matter of deciding the tradeoffs. Chief among them, how much is the operation losing to retail crime and how much would a security program cost to implement and maintain? Many operations use digital recorders but with old-fashioned analog cameras. Justin Billard, president of Downtown Surveillance, a security-consulting firm in Chestnut Hill, MA, works with retail operations of all types and sizes. “Yes, a mom-and-pop operation can afford an effective surveillance system,” he said. “I’ve worked with retailers who could only afford to spend $1,500 to $2,000 on a system — and that is low — but I can set them up with a standalone system with a digital recorder and two or three cameras inside, a waterproof camera outside, for that amount.”

Placement Counts

Billard stresses that how an operator uses the system can be much more important than how advanced the technology is. “It’s not so much the cameras as the placement,” he said. “What do you always see when you see surveillance footage of a robbery on the local news? The camera is up in the corner looking down, the guy has a baseball cap on and you get 90% brim. You don’t see his face.” In contrast, he points to the cameras watching banks’ ATM machines. “Those are aimed right at the user’s face,” he said.

Strategically placed globe cameras cover much of the selling area at Park City, UT, store.

Billard advises his retail clients to put cameras at eye level at the store’s checkout lanes. Most often, these cameras are hidden. “A camera at the customer’s eye-level behind the cashier feels bullying to people, 98% of whom are good, honest customers,” he said. Billard has installed pinhole cameras behind posters, their tiny lenses looking out through the cutout hole inside a “d” or an “o.”

Just like technology does, crime evolves over time. Take shoplifting. While many retailers still see what might be called the old-fashioned kind of shoplifting, a local person stealing a bottle for their own personal consumption, some control agencies, like other types of retailers, are also seeing more organized types of shoplifting. “The shoplifting we have seen of late has been of high-end products — high-end for its resale value — by very organized groups,” said New Hampshire’s Engel. “Shoplifting is a whole different world from when I first started at the commission. Now, it is for financial gain — alcohol is a very disposable product. But it’s not just us, it’s all types of retailers. People are making a full-time living from shoplifting. It’s crazy.”

David Hill, a detective with the Montgomery County Police Department in Maryland, recognized this trend back in 2002. “I noticed a trend of career criminals who, back in the ’70s and early ’80s, committed major crimes like robberies, de-escalating, basically, to theft. They were constantly committing these crimes, getting arrested three to four times a month, but no one was monitoring it and bringing it to the prosecutor’s attention,” he explained. Hill proposed to his department that he be assigned exclusively to investigate retail theft and fraud — and he has been doing so for the last four years.

Deterring Shoplifters

One of the most effective deterrents for shoplifting is also one of the simplest. “Greet your customers,” said Hill, “and if you suspect something, watch them.” While Hill has not had the occasion to investigate shoplifting at the Montgomery County Department of Liquor Control’s stores, Gus Montes de Oca, the chief of the operations division there, echoed his thinking. “The best deterrent to shoplifting is to always have people watching on the sales floor,” he said.

Video images from around the
store area are tracked by Toshiba
Surveillix system monitor.

Billard of Downtown Surveillance agrees. “When it comes to shoplifters, kill them with kindness, offer them customer service,” he said.

Although many retailers offer employees bonuses for spotting shoplifters, police discourage people from confronting shoplifters on their own. “Unless they are trained, I usually don’t recommend that people confront them,” said Hill. “Shoplifters have been known to carry weapons — guns and knives and razorblades — and sometimes their minds are altered from drugs.”

Lieutenant Metcalf from New Hampshire agreed. “In my opinion, you don’t want a person, perhaps working part-time in a store, to be risking themselves in a face to face confrontation,” he said.

Experts agree, however, that it is always good to report shoplifting incidents, even if the person is not caught. The Utah ABC always reports shoplifting to the local police. “Perhaps the police will just write a ticket,” said Kellen, “but it’s on the record.” Hill agrees. “Police departments keep statistics,” he explained. “Reporting incidents will show where these crimes are taking place and where the police should focus.”

Always reporting them also sends a message to the perpetrators. Billard cites, as an example, a chain of apparel stores that did not have a policy of reporting such thefts. “They would just ask for the merchandise back,” he said. “That taught shoplifters that that was the worst that would happen if they stole from those stores. The chain actually closed because it couldn’t take all the losses it was experiencing.”

Funny Money

State stores do sometimes see the attempted use of counterfeit money at their checkouts. “Counterfeit bills and counterfeit travelers checks are an ongoing concern,” said Utah’s Kellen. Often, these items are passed by traveling groups of professional criminals.

For instance, some agencies have seen counterfeit American Express $500 travelers or gift checks. (“Real American Express checks do not come in a $500 denomination,” said Hill. “The highest amount is $100.”)

Deputy director of operations Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control

And as is often the case with professional criminals, there is an evolutionary tug-of-war between the sophistication of the criminal and the sophistication of the response by the retailer. While many retailers, for instance, have a long-standing policy of scrutinizing bigger bills, $50s and $100s, many are finding that counterfeit $20s are becoming more common.

Highlighter-style pens, designed to have their ink change color if a bill is counterfeit, are a useful tool at the checkout and are available at most office-supply stores. There are also verification devices, such as those from AccuBanker, a company based in Miami, FL, that check bills for the presence of their ultraviolet, infrared and magnetic-ink security features.

Bad checks can also be a problem. According to the University of Florida’s retail security survey, its retail respondents reported an average loss of 0.04 percent of total annual sales from bad checks in 2005. Many retailers of all types — 65.8% of those surveyed — used some type of check approval database screening system when accepting checks from customers. The Utah ABC uses the check-guarantee service from Tele-Check, which is based in Houston, TX. “We pay a percentage of each check for it, but since they’re guaranteed, we have no bad-check problem,” said Kellen.

Burglaries, especially the quick and aptly named “smash and grabs,” can cause significant-enough losses for an operation. “They throw a rock at the window and grab a bottle,” said Utah’s Kellen. “It might have only been a $10 bottle but the window costs $2,000 to fix.”

While the store’s alarm system keeps losses down by limiting the amount of time the burglar has to steal, they can still grab a surprising amount. According to the University of Florida survey of retailers, the average loss due to a burglary incident at a store was over $11,000 in 2005.

“One of the hardest gaps in security to fill is the gap in time between when the store alarm goes off and when the police arrive,” said Downtown Surveillance’s Billard. One of the security industry’s latest attempts to fill that gap is the Protect Smoke Cannon from Protect Security Systems, based in Cherry Hill, NJ. The “cannon” is a device that quickly releases a heavy, though harmless, type of dry-ice fog when triggered, either by an alarm system or by a sensor on a window. It can fill a room with a blinding fog in less than 20 seconds.

Though the battle between thief and store is a neverending one, control agencies have more technology and techniques than ever for the fight. After all, said Lieutenant Metcalf of New Hampshire, “We are not in the business of losing money.”


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