After working in retail for a good three or four years, you start to learn a few tricks of the trade. For example, most of the alarm gates in retail stores can easily be rendered useless by someone who is determined to take something without paying for it.

Most alarm gates consist of two tall pillars near the entrance or exit of any given store. Usually a metal strip or "pad" is on the floor between these two pillars. Retail stores place little metal strips inside and/or on the outside of most of the merchandise they carry. When you walk between the pillars, the alarm will go off if the metal strip is detected.

Sometimes the alarm will go off my accident, either by someone's car keys or another metal object they're carrying on their person. In which case, store security usually comes running up to check the person's bags to make sure they're not taking something they haven't paid for.

However, if you would like to get past these detectors undetected, there are a few things you can try.

1. Usually these pillars aren't very high. If you know you can't be spotted, you can raise your arm carrying the object over the pillars. That way the metal strip inside the product will completly miss the detectors.

2. Sometimes these pillars don't extend from wall to wall. If there is any space inbetween one of the pillars and an outer wall, what's stopping you from simply sliding the item in question between the wall and the pillar?

3. If you're really swift, you'll find a way to actually remove the metal strip from the item before walking out. Unfortunately, most retail stores are now putting these metal strips in locations where they can not be removed without calling attention to yourself. For example, most music stores will place cd's in protective sheaths that can only be removed with some sort of key they have behind the counter.

Most stores have noticed these flaws in security and have taken steps to prevent these workarounds, including hiding cameras pointed at the pillars. So even if the alarm doesn't go off, the police will have plenty of evidence to land you in jail. Stealing is wrong. And if you're caught, what happens next isn't fun. So practice 'paying for what you want.'


Okay, so now I have to write an amentment to my writeup because some people have to be stupid about the whole thing. Notice where I pointed out that stores have taken steps to prevent the workarounds I listed? In layman's terms (because apparently I need to spell it out for some people) that means DON'T DO IT!

I apologize for the outburst. Just trying to remove some people's heads from their rear ends.

I've never shoplifted anything in my life, but even so, those little alarm gates present me with a challenge that I must overcome. Oddly enough, I've found that many stores actually don't even have anyone around to do something when the alarm goes off. Several times, a clerk has forgotten to remove one of the magnetic strips from something I've bought (this seems to happen with books at Barnes and Noble a lot), and I'll inadvertently set off the alarm.

At least 75% of the times this has happened, nobody has even so much as glanced in my direction. One time the alarm went off and I stopped and waited for someone to come search my bag. Nobody came. So I passed the bag through the pillars again, setting off another alarm. Still, nobody came. Again, I set the alarm off. Again, I was ignored. Finally I just went on my merry way and waved at the security camera on my way out.

Methinks that, at least to some extent, these alarms have attained the same status as your average car alarm. When was the last time you called the cops because you heard someone's car alarm go off?

While not strictly a way of getting past them without them going off, per se, there is another way to get merchandise out of the store without being questioned. The alarm sounds when something passes through the gates that hasn't had it's "strip" deactivated, right?. So that means if you didn't pay an item it, the alarm will go off.

So what if the alarm went off for everyone regardless? It would be completely useless.

Most older gates (newer one, I'm not sure of) work (in basic terms) by having a tuned electrical field maintained between two nodes. The metal 'honour strip' in the item has been imbued with a property that interrupts that field in such a way that can be detected. Simple, right?

Here's where the interesting part comes in. Many (older) security gates are quite sensitive; this is why keys and cell-phones can set them off. One day an old friend of mine were reasoning that, if the gate detects these strips, it might do it on the basis of magnetic fields.

What we did is get a very large iron plate (perhaps 9 inches by 18 inches) and wrapped it with wire, then lashed it to my friends back. It hooked the ends of the wire through a toggle switch and then to a power source, in this case 3 12v lantern batteries in series.

I probably don't have to explain what it was, but I will anyway: we constructed a what amounted to be a huge wearable electromagnet. And so, wearing our gear, we went to try it out at a department store.

The first time we tried it, we were about 5 meters from a gate. Flip the switch for 5 seconds. Nothing. Second time, though, about 3 meters (~ 10 feet) from the gate we did indeed bring forth music. A quick 1 second toggle was all it took to set the gate blaring, interrupting it's delicate magnetic field. Knowing we had this power, the practical upshot of it is we triggered the gate a few unsuspecting people, who where later found to not be carrying anything stolen at all. So, after about about 4 occurences of innocent people being fingered, the store manager has a word with his floorwalkers, and decided to turn that gate off for the day until a serviceman could check it out.

That's one way to get past it. There is a problem, however, because it happens to be a huge magnet is will probably permanently damage any TVs in your immediate area. C'est la Vie.

Re: AmadeusTheKitten's writeup:

Do not try this. Do NOT try this. This isn't like playing Super Mario Bros where you have 6 lives to waste in an attempt to jump across that pit. You have ONE shot and if you get caught, you're caught. Essentially what has been recommended is trial and error. Maybe if you're lucky you might get through the gates, but it only takes one time to fuck it up and fuck yourself over. La Fours the rent-a-security-guard isn't going to be very forgiving when you're caught trying to steal, and saying "I wasn't going to steal it, I just wanted to see if I could get through" isn't the most endearing statement to make.

1. Raising your arm over the pillars is a very bad idea. You cannot see the magnetic field and you do not know how far it's going to extend. Some of the barriers have stronger fields than others, and some extend higher than others. Sometimes the pillars aren't even the real thing: the equipment is sometimes attached to the walls and go up much higher than the pillars, with the pillars just being for show to make people think they can raise their arm. DON'T BE STUPID.

2. Again, you cannot see the magnetic field. Trying to slide the merchandise through the gap at the side is a bad idea: the field is not limited by the barriers and extends to the side, and again it can go for some distance depending on the strength of the field. I'm sure you've seen it happen at Blockbuster, when the video jockey slides your movie along the counter next to the pillar so you can pick it up when you walk out: the alarm is triggered, even though it's outside the pillar. And again, you can't be certain that the pillars aren't vanity pillars with the real deal in or on the wall. DON'T BE STUPID.

3. Do not attempt to outsmart the store. You removed the one magnetic strip? Guess what: there were two. Stores are smarter than you, and when they demagnetize the strip by sliding it over their little plate, it gets all of them. Even the one you didn't see and thus left you thinking you could have stolen it. For Christ's sake, just don't be stupid!


AmadeusTheKitten: lose the temper tantrum and stop acting like you're ten. A lot of people are very stupid, and a lot of people would try it anyway. I'm trying to make as clear as possible that it is a very bad idea to attempt to shoplift this way, as you did not make it clear that the methods listed would not work. I explained why they would not work, just as you said that they might not work.

Disclaimer: I have never stolen from a store either.

Here's a perfectly evil idea. Pay for one or two items, walk out with five. They call you back up to demagnetize the strip again, or simply let you go though. When the alarm fires again, they will just think it is malfunctioning. Stores will not harass customers if they actually paid money.

Of course you are not outright stealing from the store if you pay some money (and get a huge discount), but it is a curiosity that always intrigued me. Basically you would want to play on the good natures of people, the ideals of customer service, and the detector "crying wolf".

Another idea would be to carry a magnetic stripe in with you. No one would suspect you if you beeped on the way in. Just play it casual. This occured to me after hearing that certain types of Motorola security badges actually trigger the doors of certain places. Strange as it may seem, it could (and has) happened before. Fast talking, and the desire only to steal once would work best there.

All in all, don't steal. However, it's always fun to try to find clever ways to exploit the system. One of the biggest loses to retail company profits is something called "shrink". One of the leading causes of shrink is employee theft. Inside jobs. People walking out with stuff, or not ringing items in. Most people would know how to break into their own store, or steal something from their own workplace. Ask someone who works someplace in retail. Most people think where they work is the least secure place on earth.

The easiest way to foil alarms that use magnetic strips is to bring in a magnet (one off your refrigerator will do) and use it just like the cashier uses the demagnetizing plate.

On a related note, those little detection stickers make great practical jokes.

I was goofing around with one of the stickers at home, and I set it on the table. My wife came along and set her purse on top of it. I forgot about the sticker until later that night, and when I went to get it I figured it had been tossed or one of my kids had it. The next day my wife went to the store, and her purse set off the alarm. They suspected she had stolen something, and after a few passes through the detector, they narrowed it to her purse. They dumped it out on the counter, and when everything had fallen out, they noticed the sticker on the now upside-down purse.

My wife was very embarrassed, and they refunded her money. So, inadvertanty, they gave her $60 worth of stuff for the inconvenience.

I never did tell her where the sticker came from. I just nodded a lot as she angrily recounted the story.

This is a little trick that I learned from my parents. First find something you like in the store. Take the item up to the clerk at the register and pay for it. Usually they will remove any theft devices and you can leave the store undetected! If the alarm goes off you can always show the clerk the receipt and they will let you leave anyway! It may sound lame but it works every time!

Technical arguments aside, this node is one of the very few nodes that I feel compelled to reply to. Shoplifting is a form of stealing. In every nation that I've had the privilege to visit, stealing is against the law. This means that if you do it, and you get caught, you wind up in jail.

Let's say you manage to steal fifteen designer shirts, worth a total of... I don't know... five hundred dollars and are then caught stealing the sixteenth shirt. You just saved yourself a lot of money. You will also get to spend several weeks living with your fellow convicted criminals. Now, would you rather do that, or would you rather get a minimum-wage job for ten days, or only a little over a week?

Personally, I couldn't steal, because I feel that it is wrong. I'm leaving those feelings out of this writeup. The bottom line, though, (no pun intended, of course) is that if you look through this node and decide to try some of these techniques I would first suggest considering whether you feel that waiting to purchase your CD or shirt or jacket for a week or two is better than

  • Going to jail for somewhere between a week and a month.
  • Having a criminal record tied to your name, which may mean never getting a job again outside of construction sites.
  • Never being welcome to shop in that store again.
  • Having to explain to your parents and employer why you felt that a brief article on the web justified theft.

ShadowNode: To start with, my parents were both staunchly anti-war in the sixties, and I personally feel that things are not right or wrong solely because of society's opinions on them. That said, however, interfering with the 'searching', as you call it, is very likely to get you accused of stealing, with the consequences I mention above.


ThePope: "Stay out of trouble" covers it exactly. I like and respect the diversity of people on this site, and while I am not a drug user (aside from caffeine), I must say that I have appreciated some of the pro-drug nodes here. However, stealing is wrong for reasons above and beyond the fact that the government doesn't like it, and the consequences for it are severe and, if they happen to you, they have a probability of one. Such things tend to render irrelevant any discussion of odds and how to improve them.

Shoplifting is stealing, and stealing is wrong (most of the time, anyway). However, scanning people as they leave a store is also wrong and should not be tolerated.

Interfering with these scanners is both an ethical, and productive thing to do. I applaud anyone who reduces their efficacy, even if they shoplift in the process. Sometimes, two wrongs do make a right.

Many retail stores have forgone the scanners in favour of door nazis, who will attempt to search your belongings as you leave the store, and compare them to your reciept. I urge everyone to refuse this search; remember, you have no obligation to prove your innocence. I cannot speak for US law, but here in Canada if a search is forced, and no evidence is found, you get to sue them till they bleed. (of course, IANAL).
Pakaran: Not in my country (Well, except perhaps for #3). What's illegal about carrying around one of those little stickers that triggers the sensors?

This is ABSOLUTELY not intended to suggest that anyone should attempt to steal. It also is not intended to suggest that this is a good way to do so. Anyone considering theft should go have a talk with their chaplain/priest/minister, local police officer, or a rock, as they all are potentially more intelligent than a shoplifter. Retailers and retail defenders, look at my point at the end, please, to help reduce consumer costs.

Field-interruption alarm gates are installed as an afterthought by most retail stores, just like people who install oft ignored car alarms. These gates can usually be triggered by items commonly found in many of the larger super-department-stores. Most people who are predisposed to shoplifting already know what these items are. I am sharing my experience here not to encourage shoplifting, but to give people in retail (as I once was) an insight into one method shoplifters I've caught have attempted to use. The shoplifters already know this, but the low-paid employees do not.

As mentioned above, the gates are an afterthought to the store designers. Usually they buy the cheapest brand or the brand that is the least 'intrusive' (read: prettiest) to the customer experience. This means that they do not necessarily get the best product. This also means that most of the time, the gate will trigger to something as simple as a roll of copper cable.

The professional shoplifter knows that the best practice is to get the store management or security to see them specifically as innocent, paying customers. This means a little capital outlay on their part, but quite often can mean a hefty reward if nobody catches on in time. Key personnel need to recognize these SIMPLE social engineering tricks.

The process:

  1. The individual goes to the electronics or hardware department. They look for a roll of copper cable (a good roll of telephone cable for instance. It is important that it is a ROLL)
  2. They purchase the roll of cable.
  3. They see if the roll of cable sets off the alarm. If it does, they've found a good roll and can continue. If it doesn't, they follow the next step and then start over (store managers, TAKE NOTE OF THIS BEHAVIOR).
  4. They return the roll of cable (stores which require identification and signatures upon return of products have a bit of a protection here if they catch the thief on camera later, so such a policy and good cameras would be ideal for the store)
  5. They come back to the store later and pick up an identical roll and put it in their shopping cart.
  6. Here's where the standard shoplifter's sleight of hand comes in, as they must conceal the item they want to shoplift. somewhere on their person
  7. They check-out purchasing the roll of cable and anything else a normal Joe may buy.
  8. When the alarm goes off and the Rent-a-cop comes running, they tell him/her this happens to them all the time and have him/her (not the thief themselves, it's more believable if the security person does it) pass the cable through the gates.
  9. Usually at this point, the employee will let them, their bags of merchandise, and their concealed (AND I MUST SAY, ILLEGAL) items out the door with apologies.

Here's My Point:
Those of you who work in the retail sector, make yourselves familiar with these types of scenarios and share them with coworkers. This is the best way to cut SHRINK due to theft. If you know your enemy, you will surely catch your enemy. Even if you are only a cashier, remember that the money good people pay is what pays you and the money bad people don't pay is why your paycheck isn't what it should be. It is your responsibility, too!


Updated June 15, 2001

Thanks to mr100percent for pointing out my omission of a procedure that should be used by anyone responsible for preventing gate jumping. The basic rule of thumb is that you (the cashier/guard) TAKE CONTROL OF THE SITUATION, have the person pass through the gate without anything, then pass the inanimate objects through the gate to determine where the problem exists. Always remember, though, you should be careful to observe any federal, state, or local laws in dealing with the public. In most areas, you cannot handle their personal property or physically restrain them unless they pose a threat to you or others.

Interestingly enough, Maplin (www.maplin.co.uk) use cheap enough gates that they detect large rolls of copper cable cable. So when I went to maplin to buy a large roll of copper cable (20m of network coax), the alarm does its thing. Loudly.
I stand there looking perplexed, but maplin hires people that are actually knowledgeable with electronics and electrical engineering, so the clerk looks up from the counter, sniggers, and says that he was expecting it to happen, and I jumped higher than most people do...


It was fun going round the St. James Centre seeing how many gates I could set off.

It is also worth pointing out that all of the retail stores I have worked in have used other cost cutting measures to avoid expensive security equipment.

Say that the shop in question had six checkouts. It’s a fair bet that at least half of the gates covering these checkouts are fake and don’t actually do anything at all. In both stores only two gates were real, and it was always gate two and four, don't know why.

Although the gate covering the exit is real, the one covering the entrance is not, so leave via the front door. As others have mentioned, many items in the shop tend to set off the alarms. Since I worked in Homebase (a British D.I.Y store) I discovered that most powered garden tools tend to set off the gates due (I think) to the powerful electric motors they use. Obviously carrying a Flymo around with you is a bit awkward, but the motor from an electric strimmer is not bulky, and could be used for fooling the staff.

Another method (tried on me quite often) is to have a trolley full of fiddly little things that don’t cost all that much. The idea is that the tired and underpaid assistant will not bother counting how many you’ve got, and will just ask you instead. You can then attempt to judge how many you can get away with not mentioning - say you have thirty five when you actually have fifty. This also can work if they employ someone to stamp your receipt when you leave, since they won’t be bothered either.

Note: I don’t steal, and don’t recommend anyone to try it… do so at your own risk.

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