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Theft of Customers' Personal Property in Cafés and Bars

Guide No. 60 (2010)

by Shane D. Johnson, Kate J. Bowers, Lorraine Gamman, Loreen Mamerow, Anna Warne

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The Problem of Theft of Customers' Personal Property in Cafés and Bars

What This Guide Does and Does Not Cover

We begin this guide by describing the problem of theft of customers' personal property from cafés and bars and reviewing associated risk factors. We then identify a series of questions to help you analyze your local problem, and, finally, review responses to this type of problem. At present, evaluative research—whether carried out independently or by the police—is scarce; consequently it is not possible to draw any firm conclusions as to which responses to theft of customers' personal property from cafés and bars are the most effective. Nevertheless, we review several responses to this problem and make tentative statements as to their effectiveness.

Theft of customers' personal property from cafés and bars is one aspect of the larger set of theft- and property-related problems. This guide, however, is limited to addressing the particular harms created by the unlawful removal of customers' personal property from cafés and bars. Table 1 shows some of the different types of theft that might occur in a café or bar environment and the extent to which the offender is visible to the victim at the time of the offense. Unless otherwise stated, the phrase 'theft of customers' personal property' will be used interchangeably with 'theft in cafés and bars.'

For the purpose of this guide, the two types of problems—theft from customers in cafés and theft from customers in bars§—are considered together but independently from the crimes of larceny/theft/robbery in general for the following reasons. The two types of premises (and associated victims and offenders) share a number of characteristics that contribute to the crime problems experienced. Consequently there is considerable overlap in terms of the types of appropriate crime reduction tactics. To elaborate, both types of premises are semi-private spaces that provide similar services and the opportunity for social interaction. Both generally have a substantial turnover of patrons, comprising both regulars and infrequent visitors. In both types of facilities the likelihood of crime occurrence is a function of many things, including: 1) the type of security employed, both in terms of staff (and their training) and physical measures; 2) the internal layout of the facility; and 3) the types of people who frequent the property and the purposes of their visits. To some extent at least, each factor is within the managers' influence. Moreover, cafés and bars are likely to be subject to similar legal regulations that might be useful when trying to encourage certain responses from place managers§§, or that place managers might use to achieve desired outcomes.

§ Here, a bar is defined as a business that serves drinks, including alcohol, for consumption on the premises, while a café is defined as a facility where meals and non-alcoholic drinks are served and consumed. Bars do vary considerably and may include "neighborhood" bars, jazz clubs, wine bars, and dance clubs (Madensen and Eck, 2008). Note that typical restaurants are not included here.

§§ Place managers monitor places and are therefore in a position to discourage crime (Eck, 1994).

Table 1: Different Types of Theft that Occur in Cafés and Bars.

§ Snatch offenses differ from personal robbery because there is no violence or threat of violence associated with them.

Although cafés and bars display similar crime-related characteristics, they also exhibit differences that are worth considering. For example, dance or nightclubs might leave women patrons especially vulnerable to bag theft because bags are often poorly attended to while they are dancing. On the other hand, café patrons might be more at risk of laptop computer theft because they are more likely to take them to such facilities. In what follows, these differences will be highlighted where they are important to crime-prevention planning.

Related Problems

Related problems not directly addressed in detail in this guide (those with asterisks are briefly touched upon), each of which requires separate analysis, include:

Some of these related problems are covered in other guides in this series, all of which are listed at the end of this guide. For the most up-to-date listing of current and future guides, visit www.popcenter.org.

General Description of the Problem

Theft of customers' personal property from cafés and bars is a problem that has largely been overlooked in research literature. Reasons for this—discussed in more detail below—are that many crimes go unreported and data are rarely recorded or analyzed by crime reduction agencies in a way that would draw attention to the extent of the problem. However, the problem is substantial, serious, and could increase over time, meaning that addressing it is important.

Popularity of Cafés and Bars

There have always been large numbers of bars in the United States and elsewhere.§ However, the popularity of coffee shops and other types of cafés has risen steadily. For example, in 1990 there were approximately 200 freestanding coffee houses in the United States. In 2004, there were more than 14,000.1 This impacts the volume of crime that occurs at these types of locations. Simply put, if there are more cafés and bars, more people will visit them, and the opportunities for crime in such establishments will increase.

§ According to the U.S. Census Bureau (2000), in 1997 there were nearly 7,000 coffee shops in the United States, and more than 52,000 licensed venues. Recent figures suggest there are more than 21,400 coffee shops in the United States. In 2007, there were about 51,000 licensed bars in the United Kingdom alone.

The Extent of the Problem and Measurement Issues

Results from the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS)2 suggest that only one-third of completed thefts in the United States are reported to the police. Even when victims do report offenses to the police, the extent of the problem may still be distorted. For example, the victim may be unaware that an offense has occurred and report the stolen item(s) as lost property.3 Furthermore, police might not consider reported incidents serious enough to formally record them.

Analysis of police-recorded crime data is also problematic as there is no specific category for recording thefts of customers' personal property from cafés and bars. For example, in the United States, these crimes are recorded under the general category of larceny, which refers to the taking of money or property where no force or threat thereof occurs. Because this is a general category, statistics are not routinely available for the specific crimes that are the focus of this guide, and figures can be derived only when sufficient additional information is recorded about the location of offenses.

In the United States, summary data regarding pocket picking and purse snatching, for example, are readily available as part of the analysis of Uniform Crime Reports published by the U.S. Department of Justice.§ Data regarding theft in cafés and bars are not.

§ www.fbi.gov/ucr/ucr.htm

Data from the International Crime Victim Survey (ICVS) and the European Survey on Crime and Safety (EU ICS) provide an estimate of crime risk across 30 countries and the 33 main cities within them. The estimated rate of personal property theft in2004 in the United States§§ was 77 (pocket picking = 33) crimes per 1,000 population at risk4. In London (U.K.), the corresponding figure was 102 (pocket picking = 52) crimes per 1,000 population at risk. These rates are higher than those for other types of acquisitive crime covered in the survey.§§§

§§ This estimate is based on 1,001 surveys conducted in 2004 in a New York City using a random sample of the population.

§§§ For the New York City sample of the ICVS, the rates per 1,000 population at risk were 23, 19, and 66 for the crimes of robbery, burglary, and theft from vehicle respectively.

Although official statistics for theft in cafés and bars are not publicly available, summary data from a large-city police force in the United States are instructive. The data relate to grand larceny crimes recorded in 2004. Of the total recorded, one-quarter occurred in bars/clubs or eateries. Unfortunately data were unavailable for suburban or rural agencies at the time of this writing, but we suggest that bars are high-risk facilities in most contexts.

Consideration of where pocket-picking and purse-snatching offenses occur is also instructive. Analyses of the NCVS 20065 indicate that just under one-quarter of all offenses occurred in bars, restaurants, and nightclubs. Similarly, secondary analysis of 2006 British Crime Survey (BCS) data suggests that about one-quarter of cell phone thefts occur in such facilities.

However, the above statistics consider only a fraction of the crimes that occur in bars. The results from a study conducted in a chain of bars licensed to sell alcohol in London (U.K.) provide more detail. Over two years (January 2005 to December 2006), police recorded a total of 1,023 incidents of theft in the 26 bars considered.6 This equates to about 1.5 crimes per day across the 26 establishments. Put another way, the rate of crime across the bars, expressed as the number of crimes per seats available, equated to 101 crimes per 1,000 seats per year.

These calculations are limited because they do not account for the amount of time patrons are exposed to the risk of this crime type. For example, houses may be burgled at any time. However, people can be victimized in bars only when they are in them. As this is usually less than 24 hours§, the quoted rates underestimate the actual risk.

§ In fact, the highest risk of theft in cafés and bars is likely to be concentrated within a relatively short period of time rather than being consistent throughout the day (Smith et al., 2006). This pattern is also referred to as an "acute" temporal clustering of crimes (Ratcliffe, 2004).

To summarize, measuring the extent of theft in cafés and bars is difficult due to the way these crimes are recorded. Nevertheless, available estimates suggest that the risk of this type of crime is greater than that for other types of acquisitive crime.

Clearance Rates and Offenders

According to data from the NCVS, arrests are made for about 4 percent of cases of pocket picking or snatch theft. For theft in general the figure is less than 1 percent. Reasons for low-detection rates include: 1) the problem of identification—items stolen are rarely registered to the rightful owner in a way that would facilitate their identification if recovered; and 2) theft of this kind is generally a crime of stealth§, so the victim is unlikely to be able to provide a description of the offender.

§ In a study conducted in London (U.K.), 89 percent of victims did not notice the crime occurring and 35 percent realized an offense had occurred only when they were about to leave the bar (Smith et al., 2006).

As a consequence of low clearance rates, systematic data about the types of offenders who commit theft in cafés and bars are lacking. These offenders may have the same profile as pocket-pickers, or the possibility exists that they may be employees. For example, some research suggests that there is a significant amount of theft by employees in retail stores.7 Moreover, conversations with police officers in the United States suggest that some café and bar employees are arrested for committing theft in the establishments in which they work.

Spatial Concentration

As with many forms of crime, the incidence of theft in bars is not random. The Washington Post noted that almost all incidents of purse thefts in restaurants and bars occurred in three of the city's seven police districts.8 Analysis9 of crimes at a sample of 26 bars in London (U.K.) showed that about 60 percent of thefts occurred in only 20 percent of the premises considered. Although analyses of thefts in cafés are unavailable, the pattern of concentration described has so far proven to be so consistent10 for other crime types that we are willing to speculate the same would hold true here.

Research also suggests that the risk of theft in bars may cluster within bars. The hotspot map shown in Figure 1 below—reproduced from an earlier study11—indicates that bag theft was unevenly distributed. There appears to be an elevated risk around the south but not the north entrance.

Figure 1. An Example of a Micro-environmental Hotspot to Show How Risk varies within a Bar.
Figure 1. An example of a micro-environmental hotspot to show how risk varies within a bar

Perpetrator Techniques

Offenders use a variety of techniques to steal from others depending on a range of factors such as the type of place, the time of day, the items targeted, the victim, and the offender(s) themselves. Some common techniques are described below (a one-page illustrated summary of which can be found at http://www.designagainstcrime.com/index.php?q=perpetratortechniques):

  • Lifting: Picking up property from a table, a chair, or the floor while the victim is not looking
  • Dipping: Reaching into the victim's pocket, purse, or bag
  • Snatching: Pulling the property off of or away from the victim and then fleeing
  • Slashing: Cutting the property loose from the victim; e.g., cutting purse straps to steal a bag
  • Distraction: Creating a scene, asking for directions, or otherwise distracting the victim's attention from his or her property

Bag thieves do not always work alone. Working in teams is especially fruitful in distraction offenses.12 For such offenses, a 'stall' often stops the victim (e.g., by asking for the time) while a 'blocker' obstructs the victim's view so the theft goes unnoticed. Sometimes, a third party takes the stolen items from the pocket-picker.13


Although it is not always possible to identify those most at risk of theft in cafés and bars, several risk/protective factors have been identified for the general crime of theft. Analyses of NCVS data suggest that individuals between the ages of 16 and 19 are at the greatest risk of purse-snatching or pocket-picking offenses.14 There do not appear to be gender differences in the risk of these types of crime.

Results from the BCS suggest that people who visit cafés and bars three or more times a week are at more than twice the risk of theft (snatch and stealth) than those who do not.15 One reason for this may be that those with active social lives are simply exposed to the risk of crime more of the time. However, it may also suggest that cafés and bars are particularly risky facilities for this type of crime.

Analysis of 965 incidents of police-recorded crime data (January 2005-December 2006) concerning bag theft in a chain of London (U.K.) pubs conducted for this guide indicated that, in contrast to the pattern observed for theft, 85 percent of victims were female and most were between the ages of 21 and 25. Also, younger females (under 25) were at a greater risk of victimization than older females (26-50). For males the reverse was true. Additionally, forms of identification such as driving licenses or passports, were more frequently stolen from younger customers (presumably because they need these to enter the bar).

Harms Caused by Theft in Cafés and Bars

The most immediate impacts of this type of crime are borne by victims. Costs include the replacement of stolen goods§, lost output due to time taken off work to report the crime and conduct related business such as canceling stolen credit cards, and coping with any injuries sustained. When personal identification is stolen, the risk of identity theft may be significant.§§ To illustrate, in one study an interviewed offender stated: "Stolen handbags were the source (of personal identification stolen) I am afraid. Women are more susceptible than men because of where they carry their handbags...hot targets were shoe shops and coffee shops [because of the high tables]"16 Moreover, analysis of identity theft in the United States indicates that in about one-third of cases, the identification used in the offense was acquired from a lost or stolen purse or wallet.17 Given this link to identity theft (and credit card fraud§§§), what might be thought of as a trivial crime should perhaps be considered a more serious crime multiplier, where one crime facilitates others.

§ The economic costs of thefts in cafés are unavailable, but, according to NCVS results, victims of pocket picking (one technique used for this type of crime) lose about $32 million per year.

§§ See Problem-Specific Guide No. 25, Identity Theft, for further information.

§§§ See Problem-Specific Guide No. 21, Check and Card Fraud, for further information.

Thefts in cafés and bars can also affect business revenue. For example, in one study, one-quarter of theft victims reported they intended to avoid the venue in the future.18 Of course, as with any crime, there is also a cost to the criminal justice system.

Factors Contributing to the Problem

The following section outlines factors that contribute to theft in cafés and bars. Understanding these will help you frame your own local analysis questions, determine good effectiveness measures, recognize key intervention points, and select appropriate responses.

Location of Personal Property

Analysis of bag theft in bars in London (U.K.) indicates that where bags are placed influences crime risk.19 Bags left on the floor or on the back of customers' chairs are at about twice the average risk, whereas bags placed on tables or on the person were at a much lower risk (1/6th and 1/27th of the average, respectively). Obviously, the risk is highest for unattended bags; the study reported that in at least one-third of recorded thefts, the bag was unattended at the time of the offense. This suggests that (personal) guardianship of customers' property is often ineffective perhaps because the provision of suitable storage facilities (particularly for bulky items) is insufficient, forcing patrons to leave items in risky locations such as the floor.§§§§

§§§§ Other reasons could be that customers leave property unattended when they visit the bar or restroom. Also, because of legislation banning smoking in cafés and bars in many states in the United States and everywhere in the United Kingdom, customers may leave their property unattended when going outside for a cigarette.

Many establishments do provide some sort of storage for personal items. These range from coat and bag hooks in semi-secure storage such as bag/coat checks to secure storage such as lockers. The risk of theft is likely to be reduced when these are used; however, there is generally only anecdotal evidence to show this.


Of course, an offender's readiness to offend is reduced when there is little to be gained. In the case of theft, at least some of the items that people routinely carry on their person—and hence found in high concentrations in cafés and bars—satisfy the20 acronym CRAVED, which defines a hot product§: Concealable, Removable, Available, Valuable, Enjoyable, and Disposable. Three CRAVED items that most people have when frequenting cafés and bars are cash, credit/debit cards, and some form of identification. Cash and credit cards are CRAVED for reasons that require no explanation. Identification is valuable to thieves for the purpose of identity theft.§§

§ Hot products are those items favored by thieves. They tend to have a high value-to-weight ratio and are easy to dispose of. Cash is the ultimate hot product as it requires no work before the offender can use it.

§§ See Problem-Specific Guide No. 25, Identity Theft, for further information.

Table 2 below—generated from a re-analysis of a London-based study21—indicates that items fitting the CRAVED profile are those most frequently stolen. The first two columns indicate whether an offender acquired stolen items by stealing a bag and all of its contents or by dipping into the bag and selecting particular items. The third column indicates how much more likely a particular item was to be taken when specifically targeted (i.e., dipped) than when stolen as part of the contents of an entire bag. It appears that four of the five§§§ CRAVED items shown in the table not only are likely to be stolen during thefts in bars, but are more likely to be specifically targeted, suggesting evidence of offender targeting decisions.

§§§ Considering cell phone theft, there is little difference in the two figures (dipping versus theft of the entire bag). Cell phones are specifically targeted, but the results suggest they are not targeted as much as other CRAVED items during dipping offenses. However, the analysis focused only on theft of or from bags. Cell phones are not always in bags and are often left on tables in cafés and bars. Such incidents were unavailable for analysis.

Table 2: Items Stolen in Bars as a Result of the Theft of the Entire Bag or Dipped from the Bag
 Bag Taken (%)Items Dipped from Bag (%)Ratio
Credit cards/Cash*30531.77
Driving Licenses*581.6
Cell Phones32290.91
Optical Equipment2.40.30.13
Audio Equipment30.30.10

* CRAVED items

Laptop computers are another hot product that are often stolen but not necessarily stored in bags.22 The availability of wireless connectivity in many cafés, coffee shops, and bars means that laptops are routinely used at and found on table tops at these venues. Moreover, laptops make good targets for thieves as customers are often distracted in these environments and laptops are rarely secured.§§§§

§§§§ For more on this, see Kitteringham (2008).

Considering future trends, it is worth noting that cell phone functionality is continually advancing. Current models routinely feature MP3 players and high resolution cameras. However, the "smart wallet technology"23, which will allow users to pay electronically for goods and services using their cell phone, is a significant change in functionality that is likely to appeal to thieves. If this technology becomes ubiquitous, cell phone theft is likely to increase and the types of associated multiplier crimes (e.g., identity theft) will become even more serious.§ Other payment technologies that allow consumers to pay for goods wirelessly are also likely to make theft from the person an increasingly attractive crime.

§ Some companies within the cell phone industry are developing software to secure cell phones in case of theft. Proposed remote functions include locking the cell phone, wiping sensitive information, and automatically sending text messages to pre-designated numbers if the sim card is changed without the owner's authorization. Similar technology exists for laptops (Brandt, 2006).

Cafés and Bars as Generators and Attractors of Crime

Cafés and bars generate and attract theft§§, perhaps more so than other facilities, due to:

  1. Density of static opportunities — Large numbers of people congregating in cafés and bars generates opportunities for crime. Unlike on-street populations, patrons of cafés and bars are stationary for periods of time making them easier to target.
  2. Divided attention — In both types of venues, the movement of people, noise, social interaction, and other factors mean patrons are distracted.24 In licensed premises, the availability of alcohol, loud music, and the opportunity to dance might be particularly significant.
  3. Lack of cohesion — Various groups of people tend to frequent cafés and bars (local taverns being an exception) meaning that community territoriality is unlikely, limiting any self-policing that might otherwise occur.
  4. Population turnover — The population is often transitory, varying from one period to the next, meaning strangers and offenders are likely to go unnoticed.
  5. Valuable goods — Patrons likely carry CRAVED goods. This may be particularly true in metropolitan areas, in large concentrations of shoppers, and when people are going to or from work.
  6. Stealth — Busy venues provide the anonymity necessary to commit offenses.

§§ Brantingham and Brantingham (1995) suggest that a high volume of crime may occur at certain facilities simply because large numbers of people congregate at them. A high density of people will create opportunities for crime that may be exploited by offenders who happen to be there, but who did not necessarily visit the facility to commit crime. At such facilities, referred to as crime generators, the volume of crime will be high, but the risk of crime (=volume/population at risk) low. In contrast, crime attractors are facilities that offenders know provide good opportunities for crime and they will travel to them to offend. At such facilities the risk of crime will be high, but the volume of crime need not be.

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