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Could the Self-Checkout Ruin Your Reputation?

As Big Retail’s war on shoplifting goes digital, honest customers risk getting nabbed for goofs — and then facing a shakedown

In 2018, it was noted at The Atlantic that shoplifting via self-serve checkouts was common. How does it work?

Self-checkout theft has become so widespread that a whole lingo has sprung up to describe its tactics. Ringing up a T-bone ($13.99/lb) with a code for a cheap ($0.49/lb) variety of produce is “the banana trick.” If a can of Illy espresso leaves the conveyor belt without being scanned, that’s called “the pass around.” “The switcheroo” is more labor-intensive: Peel the sticker off something inexpensive and place it over the bar code of something pricey. Just make sure both items are about the same weight, to avoid triggering that pesky “unexpected item” alert in the bagging area.

Rene Chun, “The Banana Trick and Other Acts of Self-Checkout Thievery” at The Atlantic (March 2018)

Why does it work?

When Voucher Codes Pro, a company that offers coupons to internet shoppers, surveyed 2,634 people, nearly 20 percent admitted to having stolen at the self-checkout in the past. More than half of those people said they gamed the system because detection by store security was unlikely.

Rene Chun, “The Banana Trick and Other Acts of Self-Checkout Thievery” at The Atlantic (March 2018)

The answer to problems created by new tech is — more new tech, of course…

Arrested man handcuffed hands at the back

Walmart invested in a new system: “The system, called Missed Scan Detection, does what it says, deploying advanced cameras to look for underhand behavior taking place at Walmart’s checkouts.” (Digital Trends, June 21, 2019)

If you blinked, you missed the golden moment when Missed Scan Detection solved the problems, according to a group of Walmart employees:

The employees said they were “past their breaking point” with Everseen, a small artificial intelligence firm based in Cork, Ireland, whose technology Walmart began using in 2017. Walmart uses Everseen in thousands of stores to prevent shoplifting at registers and self-checkout kiosks. But the workers claimed it misidentified innocuous behavior as theft, and often failed to stop actual instances of stealing.

They told WIRED they were dismayed that their employer—one of the largest retailers in the world—was relying on AI they believed was flawed. One worker said that the technology was sometimes even referred to internally as “NeverSeen” because of its frequent mistakes.

Louise Matsakis, “Walmart Employees Are Out to Show Its Anti-Theft AI Doesn’t Work” at Wired (May 29, 2020)

False negatives just mean that someone scarfs a T-bone for the price of a banana. Wrong but not earth-shattering. But false positives are another matter. A false accusation of shoplifting — never mind a wrongful conviction — could be devastating, depending on one’s position.

Why false positives can easily happen

According to Alabama criminal defense lawyer Tim Fleming, self-checkout features inherent risks in this area:

Self-checkout has numerous problems that can lead to false accusations, some include:

● Customers are not employees, so they do not feel an obligation to worry about the store or a few missed items.

● Customers are not trained to listen for a beep, so they may inadvertently “scan” an item and keep on bagging; the item might not have scanned.

● Customers have a lot of things on their mind and they might overlook an item while scanning their items.

● Customers can change the price themselves on some kiosks; meaning they may remember seeing an item at a different price and change it themselves.

● Customers can alter the weight of an item they are paying for by lifting on the item or holding the item rather than letting it sit on the counter/weight station.

● Self-checkouts can improperly report a customer as stealing an item when they did not.

While self-checkout systems work to “speed up the process”, there are some cases where they slow down everything and even cause frivolous situations that could have been avoided by using a cashier instead.

The Problem With Self-Checkout” at Tim Fleming Law Firm (June 6, 2020)

Indeed, at one time, staff at cashiers’ desks routinely bagged groceries as well, further reducing accidental errors.

So the answer is more new technology…

Meanwhile, Newsweek reported in 2021 that Walmart was equipping its employees with a handheld scanner that “gives away what has been scanned at each machine and how many of each item, making it easy for workers to spot those who have items in their hands or bags that haven’t been scanned.” (August 17, 2021)

There! Problem solved!

Until the case from hell goes to court…

The jury rules on a revealing case,

An Alabama woman who says she was falsely arrested for shoplifting at a Walmart and then threatened by the company after her case was dismissed has been awarded $2.1 million in damages.

A Mobile County jury on Monday ruled in favor of Lesleigh Nurse of Semmes, news outlets reported. Nurse said in a lawsuit that she was stopped in November 2016 when trying to leave a Walmart with groceries she said she already paid for, according to AL.com. She said she used self-checkout but the scanning device froze. Workers didn’t accept her explanation and she was arrested for shoplifting.

Woman falsely arrested for shoplifting at Walmart is awarded $2.1 million in damages” at CBS News (December 1, 2021)

Although the case against Nurse was dismissed, the retail giant had threatened a civil suit unless she paid it $200 in settlement for the $48 in groceries. That’s when she countersued and collected.

But now get this: “WKRG reported that the trial featured testimony that Walmart and other major retailers routinely use such settlements in states where laws allow it, and that Walmart made hundreds of millions of dollars this way over two-year period.” (CBS News, December 1, 2021) Here’s a similar case from Maryland. And another, from Texas.

As big retailers herd ever more customers into the self-checkout lanes, the risk of false positives will likely increase. It may be an argument for shopping online.

Brain for hire: The internet makes academic cheating much easier. Dave Tomar, who wrote essays for students for hire for a decade, then wrote a book about it, thinks 40% of students cheat at least once. Having moved from essay writer for hire to plagiarism detector, Tomar stresses that poor skills and high debt have made many students desperate enough to cheat.

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Could the Self-Checkout Ruin Your Reputation?