There are many different ways to defraud someone in a POS-type job, all of which involve sleight of hand, social engineering, and playing innocent if you get caught. Payment feigning, mathematical overages, and sum-up change errors are the most common ways, backed up by documentation and actual studies done. Sadly enough, conspiracy to defraud is hard to catch, because you have to prove intent, but it is possible.

The sad and unfortunate reality in this exchange is that in the vast majority of cases, you're digging into a slush fund of sorts, not an individual employee's pay, and to an extent, not even to a company's profits. This margin is calculated into an individual business's costs as a retail, grocery, and general POS term known as "shrink"; a generic calculation of the bottom line of human and mechanical error in small amounts. This is not to trivialize the crime of petty theft, but companies do business based around the fact that people will try to steal candy bars, want triple paper bags for reinforcement, and try to nickle-and-dime petty amounts from register clerks. Every department store has a cash-handling department (in some form or title) dedicated to tracking and reducing this "shrink".

In fact, one twisted way that you see shrink reduction and calculation in action is in new "check yourself out" grocery store lines. They are faster, work largely by credit card (less cash handling woes, though some do take cash 7), and you simply don't need the four to eight people to staff the lines (cashier / bagging). Your staffing needs are reduced to one or two people to supervise the operation. Even though you will technically see a greater increase in theft, the bottom line is that you can save yourself money by reallocating your workforce. The benefits outweigh the additional potential shrink, and the bottom line still wins.

Even one of the most stringent cash handling professions, banking, has acceptable shrink limits. While it is possible to have a perfect drawer every time, it is easy to misroll pennies, have bills that stick together, and occasionally simply miscount. For an eight-hour retail shift, most direct to customer positions are given a few dollars of underage or shortage in either direction. Most places have fair shrink stances in that being over in your drawer carries an equal penalty to being short, (even though technically the house is making money). While small miscounts in drawers do not constitute a discipline-worthy offense, continued differences, or large individual differences typically get the notice of people in management.

In many locations (see references to: OR 1, WI 2, and the UK3), it is illegal to withhold from an employee paycheck for any reason relating to business or operating losses (shrink). Other states, such as HI 4 and WA 5 make a provision that an employer cannot recover losses from wages if more than one person has been at that particular till. Still more states need to file a civil action against you to recover the money as an operating loss. Criminal theft from customers and shoplifting employees requires the same burden of proof required in prosecuting customers looking to defraud, except the opportunity is greater. If you need to find out specific information about your locale, many unions and local Chamber(s) of Commerce will have access to employer/employee relationship laws that govern wage. This is a valuable recourse if you feel that you are being deducted from unjustly. All things considered however, it is probably simply easier to fire you under accusations of theft; a rather dire black mark on your employment history.

In every cash-handling training program worth its salt, the methods of bill feigning and change rounding are explicitly discussed. Whether or not you have an inattentive customer causing the issue, or someone looking to score a free ten dollars, there are certain best practices for handling money exchanges that insure a fair transaction, for both you and the house.

The number one strategy is keep all inbound money visible at all times. After you have taken a bill from a customer, be sure to place it on top of the till or in another place where both you and the customer can see it. Typically, there is a bar above where the drawer sticks out that makes an ideal place. Once they can clearly see where you have placed the bill, the social engineering aspect of "hey, I gave you a fifty" loses its ability to defeat you. You'll see a lot of POS folks casually doing this as it is advised by many major chains as a "best practice".

Math-based swindling is oftentimes defeated by an open counting process. Many times you'll see someone count up to the amount of change desired. The ideal count-up transaction should work like this:
Cashier: That'll be 16.45
Customer: Okay, well, here's 25.50
Cashier: 5 cents makes 16. (counting singles) 17..18..19..20.. and 5 makes 25.50
If someone tries to change the end amount, always reset your count to the initial amount and count up until you get to the transaction total, again leaving all inbound money available in plain sight but out of reach of the customer. This maintains control over the transaction and keeps people from overaging or off by one errors.

Do not for a minute think that there are not ways that people are tracked at the grocery store. Every possible permutation, calculation, and intersection of grocery store datasets are calculated and reported on for maximum prediction of fraud situations, especially in big name stores (and all of the convenience stores I run POS machines in). If you're looking to get away with a petty hustle there are a lot of factors that are tracked to match large overage patterns, including discount cards, times of shopping, items included in the purchase, etc. I have personally witnessed scams that have been busted inside of stores that have spanned across chains and locations, because of people using fraudulent coupons, POS swindling techniques, and even company insiders helping them. Especially in larger stores equipped to handle this sort of fraud, these patterns are closely watched and analyzed, as small percentages mean big dollars to those sorts of companies. Mom and pop marts are most vulnerable, but are oftentimes met with strict customer service people not very far away from the register.

In the end, as a POS person, either professionally or as a summer job, know what your rights are and know how to stop that kind of shrink. It's better for your employer (who ultimately can cut your check or cut you loose), and saves you the hassles of getting written up and spoken to about being a better cash handler. While you may be able to steal small bits here and there for low risk, you're likely to get defeated at the register or possibly by some uncomfortable stares from security guards and managers as you are escorted out of the building, correct change in hand.
Okay sir, that's: 98...99...1000 dollars 6. Thanks for coming to Mom and Pops. Have a good evening.

  1. Oregon Wage Laws:
  2. Wisconsin Wage Laws:
  3. Hawaii Wage Laws:
  4. Reference to UK Employment Law:
  5. Reference to Washington State Employee Rights Law:
  6. $1000 and/or six months in prison is the maximum punishment for petty theft under California State Law (section 490):
  7. Thanks to mkb for the report on a cash-taking self-serve checkout.