Think you’re smart nick­ing a few good­ies at the self-serve tills? Think again. First they came for the cashiers ...

The Herald on Sunday - - FUTURE SHOCK - Not so se­cret tricks Count the cost

I HAVE a con­fes­sion to make. Like many of you (one in four, ap­par­ently) I once con­sciously un­cou­pled an item from the su­per­mar­ket with­out pay­ing. Put that taser down, Con­sta­ble – I’ll come qui­etly. Your of­fer of free food and lodg­ings at the kind hos­pi­tal­ity of Her Majesty will al­low me to catch up with some read­ing and, of course, get to­tally ripped.

Yet, de­spite push­ing the phys­i­cal lim­its of the hu­man body with a rather undig­ni­fied con­tor­tion to stash my phone (knew I’d re­gret choos­ing a ph­ablet), it seems I could ac­tu­ally avoid in­car­cer­a­tion by get­ting off on a tech­ni­cal­ity.

As each cell in our bod­ies un­der­goes com­plete re­gen­er­a­tion ev­ery few years, that six-year-old me who strode valiantly past the tills with a plas­tic He-Man fig­ure un­der his shell­suit top doesn’t ac­tu­ally ex­ist any­more. He’s long gone. All that sur­vives are the me­mories of his dar­ing heist, all trapped in­side that ridicu­lously coif­fured head you see be­low. Noth­ing phys­i­cal re­mains of the wee crook this con­scious­ness once con­trolled.

De­spite its sci­en­tific le­git­i­macy, hard­ened crim­i­nals read­ing this from their prison cells should note the “It wasn’t me” de­fence – also favoured by pop star Shaggy – may not cut the mus­tard in any ap­peal hear­ing.

It re­mains a dan­ger­ous truth, how­ever – one ca­pa­ble of ter­raform­ing the planet into Grand Theft Auto overnight if a bold lawyer were to con­vince a jury the neu­rons which sparked crim­i­nal thoughts are long gone. De­spite such logic, it’s quite clear we can’t just put all pris­on­ers back on the streets after their brain cells re­gen­er­ate – at least not un­til the elites’ sky galleons take them safely to their lux­ury moon­base.

But if a re­cent study shin­ing a spot­light upon su­per­mar­ket thiev­ery is true, it seems there will be plenty of new folk to fill all those empty cells once the le­gal sys­tem does the hon­ourable thing. In the UK alone, one-quar­ter of shop­pers now ad­mit steal­ing when us­ing self­ser­vice check­outs. Although the av­er­age thief only makes off with £15 worth of goods a month, it all adds up to a stag­ger­ing £1.6 bil­lion ev­ery year.

This is a form of shoplifting so preva­lent that it has al­most be­come nor­malised – lead­ing some psy­chol­o­gists to ven­ture that the lack of hu­man in­ter­ac­tion in super­mar­kets – and the self-serve ma­chines them­selves – are crim­ino­genic. Mean­ing, they turn oth­er­wise hon­est folk into brazen, re­morse­less thieves – thrillseek­ing crims who con­vince them­selves it’s just a harm­less wee re­bel­lion against evil con­glom­er­ates.

Yet, as the prices go up for ev­ery­one to com­pen­sate cor­po­rate losses, it seems these virtue-sig­nalling ban­dits are not Robin Hood but sim­ply, well, rob­bing food. The be­lief you’re work­ing for the su­per­mar­ket by do­ing the job of the cashier, un­for­tu­nately, will never en­ti­tle one to a staff dis­count. BACK in the day, some school­pals who couldn’t af­ford their favourite video game mag­a­zines of­ten pro­cured the ser­vices of one young chap known for his mag­i­cal abil­ity to make items dis­ap­pear from shops. His method­ol­ogy was crude but ef­fec­tive – friends would crowd around the young­ster to block the pry­ing eyes of cashiers, as sev­eral rolled-up pe­ri­od­i­cals dis­ap­peared one by one up the Tardis-like sleeve of his over­sized coat. Now, thanks to self­serve tills, klep­to­ma­nia has be­come a rather more so­phis­ti­cated en­deav­our. First, there’s the two clas­sic weight tricks. Hip­ster pil­fer­ers can sim­ply press the pic­ture of pota­toes when weigh­ing ex­pen­sive av­o­ca­dos – or fail to place their haul fully on the scales so a lower weight reg­is­ters. Note, this act may ac­tu­ally be jus­ti­fied with ba­nanas, with at least one-third made up of un­us­able skin.

Other tech­niques, which are freely shared on­line on so­cial me­dia and ded­i­cated fo­rums, in­clude ob­scur­ing bar­codes while mim­ick­ing the scan­ning mo­tion and also tow­er­ing items to­gether so that only the bot­tom scans.

Play­ing dumb when an as­sis­tant queries ex­cess weight also gives these folk the chance to ex­er­cise their act­ing chops as they nick the lamb ones.

Some scams have gained such leg­end in thiev­ing folk­lore that they have earned their own names – “the switcheroo” (re­plac­ing ex­pen­sive bar­codes with cheap ones) and “sweet­heart­ing” (when shop em­ploy­ees them­selves pre­tend to scan an item be­fore hand­ing it to loved ones). In the lat­ter in­stance, you’ll prob­a­bly get away with a free 5p bag too. BE­FORE scan­ning a new pair of jeans through as a co­conut, note that those face­less, cor­po­rate be­he­moths’ profit mar­gins are ac­tu­ally far tighter than many be­lieve. Large stores tak­ing in around £1 mil­lion rev­enue each week are ex­pected to de­liver about 10% bot­tom line profit – against strong com­pe­ti­tion from dis­count com­peti­tors.

That mar­gin is ac­tu­ally a hell of a lot less than the re­turn ex­pected for this news­pa­per you’re hold­ing – so much for the dy­ing print in­dus­try. Yet, de­spite in­spir­ing ram­pant theft, self-ser­vice ma­chines are still in­fin­itely more prof­itable and less has­sle than ac­tu­ally em­ploy­ing real peo­ple. But don’t think such sav­ings cause stores to turn a blind eye to self-serve theft. Col­lec­tively, super­mar­kets are all now mak­ing siz­able ef­forts to clamp down on the ca­sual crim­i­nal­ity of their mid­dle­class clien­tele. Sains­bury’s, for ex­am­ple, has fit­ted new state-of-the-art cam­eras di­rectly above self-serve tills. Now, both your moral­ity and bald spot will be un­der close scru­tiny. Other super­mar­kets will soon adopt highly-so­phis­ti­cated tech to nail pur­loin­ers, who will have nowhere to hide from “StopLife” – ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence soft­ware which utilises al­go­rithms to de­ter­mine ev­ery pos­si­ble out­come of a shop­per’s ac­tions at the check­out. Twitchy fa­cial ex­pres­sions will alert se­cu­rity long be­fore you scan that veni­son burger through as an ap­ple. And for those who think they’re home and dry after leav­ing a shop with haul in­tact – think again. Many stores now sim­ply take an im­age of sus­pected shoplifters and use recog­ni­tion soft­ware to track them each time they en­ter the premises, build­ing a solid case for the Procu­ra­tor Fis­cal.

A sin­gle mo­ment of weak­ness may see you let off with a slapped wrist, but not a recorded cat­a­logue of events. Free steaks one day, free por­ridge the next.

Trick­ing self-serve tills is def­i­nitely a less con­spic­u­ous ap­proach to thiev­ery

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