• Center for Problem oriented policing

POP Center Tools Understanding Theft of 'Hot Products' Page 4

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What Products Are Hot?

Even though trends vary over time, the product classes described below have been especially
appealing to thieves.

Personal Electronic Products

These are products that are often carried on the person, such as:

  • Mobile phones
  • Portable media devices (e.g., iPod, iPads, Mp3, or Mp4 players)
  • Electronic book readers
  • Laptop computers and tablets

U.S. offending patterns have been linked to changes in the availability of such devices.11 Mobile phone ownership is now a rule rather than an exception with a recent report estimating that 88 percent of U.S. adults are now cell phone owners and that 46 percent of all American adults are smartphone users.12 Mobile phone theft has boomed as ownership has increased. For example, in the two-year period from 1998 to 2000, mobile phone theft doubled in New South Wales, Australia.

In the United Kingdom a mobile phone theft index compiled for 200513 examined the volume with which handsets made by particular manufacturers were stolen, and provided a method of estimating relative risks. For example, the U.K. data indicated that a Nokia phone had a risk that was 1.25 times higher than that for a Sony Ericsson, 1.36 times higher than that for Samsung, and 1.87 times that for Motorola. The types of models of phone most frequently stolen were also examined, and in 2004 the most frequently stolen phone was the Nokia 6230. As the most frequently stolen mobile phones will vary each year, it would be useful to compile such trends annually, perhaps in the form of a
government-recognized index.

The average value of a lost laptop—including the cost of replacement, data breach, lost intellectual property costs, etc.—has been estimated at just under $50,000, demonstrating the serious nature of such losses. Furthermore, the number of laptops that go missing is staggering: over 86,000 laptops were reported as having been lost in the United States in 2010.14 The chance that a laptop will go missing during a one-year period is estimated at one in ten.15 Portability (or “removability” in CRAVED terms) appears to be a significant factor: an estimated 25 percent of laptops go missing from the office or an owner’s car and 14 percent are lost in airports or on airplanes.16

Few studies have compared the theft risk for different types of personal electronic products, but in one survey, mobile phones were perceived as slightly more vulnerable to theft than digital cameras, laptops, and personal digital assistants (PDA).17 Given the rapid emergence of new electronic devices and changes in product functionality, anticipating the next wave of theft is important. For example, the theft of mobile phone smart wallets (enabled with a technology which allows direct purchasing of goods on contact) is a potential future crime problem.18

Valuable Assets

These are products that people routinely carry with them, including the following:

  • Cash
  • Credit cards
  • Identification
  • Jewelry and watches

Certain items are particularly likely to go missing in bag thefts† where an entire bag is taken, the top five being the following: 

  • Credit cards/cash
  • Passports/visas
  • Driving licenses
  • Purses/wallets
  • Cell phones 

The first four of these items are also specifically targeted by thieves who steal items out of bags.

With on-line shopping’s increase in popularity, credit card fraud is likely to continue to be a major issue.‡ In 2005, there was a 22 percent increase in Internet shopping and in the same year, credit card fraud cost $1 billion in the United States. About 40 percent of these offenses were committed by offenders using lost or stolen cards and about 15 percent by those using cards that were never received by the rightful owner. Over the course of the 1990s, increases in the use of more sophisticated forms of credit card fraud have been charted,19 but the number of offenses that involve a lost or stolen card has not declined to insignificant numbers, indicating that it is still important to deal with cards stolen through simple theft from the person.

† See Problem-Specific Guide No. 60, Thefts of Customers’ Personal Property in Cafés and Bars, for further information.

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

Vehicles and Vehicle Parts

Vehicle and vehicle parts commonly stolen include the following:

  • Cars
  • Bicycles
  • Motorbikes
  • Vans/trucks/trailers
  • Vehicle parts such as wheels, wheel rims, headlights, catalytic converters

Worldwide, vehicles and their parts represent a significant share of the hot products that go missing annually. In 2002, 1.25 million motor vehicles—with an estimated value of $8.4 billion—were stolen in the United States.20 Vehicle theft is a global issue, but there is substantial geographic variation. Victimization survey data indicates that auto theft represents a much higher proportion of all crime in the United Kingdom than in the United States. Similarly, car theft levels in Austria, Japan, Belgium, and Finland are much lower than those in the United Kingdom, Denmark, Sweden, and Spain.21

Following a peak in the early to mid-1990s,22 the car theft rate has declined fairly consistently. This is generally attributed to improvements in car security, in particular the use of steering-wheel column locks and electronic immobilizers, and associated legislation which has set security requirements for car manufacturers.23 However, there is some suggestion this has led to crime displacement, with thieves targeting older, more vulnerable cars, manufactured before the new measures were in place.

Table 1. Most at risk cars, 2008–2010

Source: Highway Loss Data Institute News Release (August 25, 2011). www.iihs.org/news/rss/pr082511.html (accessed June 19, 2013).

Of course, not all cars are equally attractive to thieves, which is apparent from Highway Loss Data Institute data. Table 1 shows the five car models that had the highest claim frequencies for theft (per 1,000 vehicles) during 2008–2010. The top car had a claim rate that was around 15 times more than the model with the lowest number of claims, demonstrating how much risk varies across models.24 The average loss payment per claim also varies, with the cars in Table 1 (on page 18) accounting for claims that were between $1,800 less and $5,000 greater than the average.25

Publicizing variability in car model risk was one motivation behind the production of the Home Office Car Theft Index (CTI). The most recently available version of this is the U.K. Car Theft Index for 2006. The Index lists the car theft risk by car category and registration year. According to the CTI, the theft rate for the most at-risk models was more than 13 in every 1,000 registered vehicles, and these models were at more than four times the theft risk than those in the lowest risk category. Data for 2003–2005 and 2000–2002 cars are shown in Table 2.

Table 2. Most at risk cars, 2000–2005

Source: U.K. Car Theft Index 2006. Home Office: London. http://avcis.police.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/CarTheft_Index_2006.pdf (accessed June 19, 2013).

The CTI data suggests that older vehicles tend to be at a greater risk than newer ones, and that while there is some overlap in the high-risk models each year, these are not always the same. The U.S. National Insurance Crime Bureau “Hotwheels” data—which is updated annually and details the most frequently stolen vehicles (but not those most at risk after accounting for the number in circulation)—suggest similar patterns and that for older cars the cumulative value of vehicle parts may exceed that of the vehicle if sold intact.26

Table 3. Car models at greatest risk for theft in the United States, 1983–1985.

 Source: Clarke and Harris 1992

As indicated in Table 3,27 car model theft rates differ across three different types of theft: 1) those that are stolen for stripping, 2) temporary use, and 3) permanent retention. There were different motivations for these thefts: cars stolen for stripping had good quality radios; those stolen for temporary use had sporty acceleration, making them attractive to joyriders; and those permanently retained were particularly high-value, desirable cars. Recent trends in stolen parts include theft of catalytic convertors and metal theft related to motor vehicles.†

† See www.theaa.com/motoring_advice/security/catalytic-converter-theft.html.

Household Items

Hot household products include the following:

  • Televisions, DVD players, and multi-media players
  • Desktop computers, game consoles
  • Stereos and sound systems
  • Antiques and art
  • Major household appliances/kitchen items

There is a substantial variation over time in items stolen during residential burglaries. For example, of the 20 items most commonly stolen in residential burglaries in New South Wales, Australia, between 2000 and 2010, other than cash, the two most common categories were electronic goods and jewelry. In 2000 particularly vulnerable items were video and DVD players, watches, still cameras, and stereo equipment. Among those items slightly less at risk were CDs, luggage, and clothing. In 2010 laptop computers were the second most stolen item, personal media devices replaced the theft of CDs, and clothes did not feature in the top 20. There was also a decline in the theft of DVD players and stereo equipment. Some items were less targeted because they were less CRAVED (e.g., microwaves) whereas others were not as universally available for theft at the time.28 Generally there were increases in cases where more disposable items such as cash, handbags, and keys went missing over time.

Consumable Goods

Consumable goods commonly targeted for theft include the following products:

  • Alcohol
  • Tobacco
  • Food items
  • Personal care products such as razors and shampoo
  • Medicines
  • Gasoline
  • Batteries
  • Entertainment media† such as compact discs, videos/DVDs, and electronic games/software

† Cloud-based and other methods of storing digital media may soon reduce the theft of such physical media, but these methods of storing data may provide opportunities for alternative types of crime.

 According to the 2010 Global Retail Theft Barometer study, the global cost of retail crime is estimated to be a staggering $115.9 billion,29 and shrinkage—whereby stock is unaccounted for and presumably stolen—costs retailers an average of 1.36 percent of global sales. The study also found that shrinkage rates vary widely. For example, in India shrinkage rates (2.72 percent) were triple those in Taiwan (0.87 percent). Similarly, shrinkage rates or theft are perceived to vary for different kinds of products. For example, shoppers believe that razor blades/shaving products, cosmetics/face creams, and perfumes (expensive branded items) are most likely to be stolen. Also believed to be commonly stolen were electrical gadgets, alcohol, fresh meat, infant formula, coffee, DVDs/games, and fashion items. Other studies cite tobacco products and analgesics as high-risk items.30

Table 4. Relative risk ratings for most stolen items in the ECR Europe Top 50 Hot Products study


One of the issues with research on theft of retail goods is that systematic information on what actually goes missing is rare. One good study of losses for three categories of merchandise—food; health and beauty products; and beers, wines, and spirits—at three large U.K. supermarkets revealed the following: In the case of food, relative to other types, fresh meat is far more likely to go missing (particularly beef and chicken), and even milk and strawberries are at a high risk of shrinkage when compared to drinks or sandwiches. For alcohol, spirits go missing with a higher frequency than wine and liqueur, and overwhelmingly it is name-brand products that go missing. For health and beauty products, commonly stolen items include pain relief, baby products, cosmetics, face creams, oral health products, and perfume. What was most telling was thieves’ preference for particular brands, and even within brands, particular products. Table 4 shows the relative risk ratings for the most stolen items for health and beauty products and alcohol (larger numbers indicate greater risk).31 

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