Social Media: A New opportunity or a new threat for retail loss prevention?

Samantha Al-Sharifi

A major challenge facing retail loss prevention (security guards etc.) today is incorporating new technologies into existing policies and practices. Despite the current bleak economic climate, in 2012-2013, retailers in the UK invested £995 million on technology designed to reduce shoplifting and employee theft (Centre for Retail Research 2013). New technologies in loss prevention are emerging every year which introduces new opportunities, but, also pose new threats.

In 2013 social media was identified as one on the key emerging trends in retail loss prevention. There are few people who would deny that social media has changed the way we interact with the world. People can now ‘update their status’, ‘tweet’ or ‘Instagram’ a photograph which can be instantly viewed globally by any individual.

Traditionally, loss prevention employees viewed social media as a liability, making their jobs more difficult. Despite this arguably still being the case, there is an emerging argument to imply that loss prevention can use social media to their advantage and even as an effective investigative tool.

Socialising with fellow employees at and outside of work is generally viewed as inevitable, with personal details often being divulged by both parties. Such knowledge frequently includes where you live, what kind of car you drive and possibly information about your family. Social media has vastly enhanced the information we can now discover in regards to fellow employees. Social media outlets such as Facebook, allows users to create a ‘bio’ which includes a vast amount of sensitive information.  Although privacy laws can restrict what can be viewed and who views it, inevitably this is not always the case. Whilst initially this may appear harmless, Organised Retail Crime (ORC) groups are using social media to their advantage, which consequently creates a significant threat for retail loss prevention.

Organised Retail Crime (ORC) refers to large scale theft of ‘everyday items’ which are then sold to individuals on the ‘black market’. The scale of ORC has significantly increased over the past 5 years with 41.7% of retailers in Europe reporting an increase in 2011 (Retail Research 2011). Finklea (2012) argues that the true cost of ORC is difficult to establish but estimations in the USA range from $15 billion to $37 billion annually (Finklea 2012).

Experts have suggested that ORC groups are now making it ‘standard procedure’ to use social media outlets to gain information and even track loss prevention employees. Thus this information can be exploited to enhance ORC. This tactic has proved extremely beneficial in gaining information on ‘plain clothes loss prevention investigators’.

Plain clothes investigators do not appear as though they work in loss prevention or even for the retailer, allowing them to monitor movement on the shop floor without being recognised. However ORC groups are using social media to identify what plain clothes investigators look like. This can be done through Facebook and Twitter profile pictures as well as Instagram photograph uploads. Once an investigator has been identified they become less effective, ORC groups can simply avoid them. Social media also allows ORC groups to track where loss prevention employees are. For example, if an investigator posts a status on Facebook or Tweets that they are enjoying a day off shopping, in their absence this allows ORC groups to steal merchandise without the risk of being detected. Additionally on most social media outlets the GPS location of the post is often highlighted.

Some would suggest the simple answer would be to introduce a company policy that prohibits loss prevention employees from using a social media account. However Broughton et al. (2009) found that implementing such a policy is not always effective and can in fact lead to a number of legal issues (Broughton et al. 2009). The National Relations Board in the USA have successfully overturned a number of employee dismissals, arguing individuals have the right to discuss certain aspects of employment on social media outlets. Whilst this has not been the case in the UK, employees are protected to make certain comments under ‘whistleblowing laws’.

A more reasonable suggestion would be to ensure employees are aware of all the risks highlighted and to ask them to apply ‘common sense’ before posting online.

More recently, loss prevention has been encouraged to use social media to their advantage. If it is inevitable that employees are going to use social media outlets, loss prevention should utilize this as a beneficial investigative tool. In previous years this tactic has been adopted through email monitoring, employees will often sign a contract at the start of employment giving their employer permission to monitor their emails.

With more than a billion registered Facebook users worldwide and more than 600 million registered Twitter profiles (Facebook & Twitter 2014), loss prevention employees could have access to a large number of employee profiles. This creates a potentially constructive opportunity should employees ‘boast’ about stealing from their employer, loss prevention would be able to initiate an investigation, which possibly could lead to the discovery of a ‘dishonest employee’.

Despite the fact that loss prevention generally can legally monitor employees online activities in the workplace, Levin et al. (2012) found that many employees still consider it ‘illegal and unethical’ (Levin et al. 2012:73). In the United States the Supreme Court recognised that employers have a legitimate interest in monitoring their employees, creating the opportunity for it to become a common practice adopted by loss prevention. Similarly in the UK monitoring employee’s social media accounts would be legal providing ‘Data Protection Policies’ reference social media.

Although the threat may appear to outweigh the opportunity, the reality is that social media is here to stay and is only going to expand over the coming years. Loss prevention need to adapt to this and ensure they are utilising social media to their advantage. More generally, retailers need to reassess their policy on social media because the threat it poses to their business reputation in considerably high. A poll was taken in a recent retail conference in the United States, 74% of employees believed it would be easy to damage a company’s reputation through social media (Ethics and Workplace Survey 2010). Retailers need to prepare for this and ensure they do not fall victim to ‘failing to move with the times’.

“It takes twenty years to build a reputation, and five minutes to ruin it.”

Warren Buffett (American Philanthropist)

Samantha Al-Sharifi (@SamAlSharifi) is a PhD student in the Law School at Lancaster University. Her research interests are focused in the area of retail theft and loss prevention. She has conducted research in this area for both her undergraduate dissertation and Master’s dissertation. Her PhD thesis will consider why the private security industry is dominated by men. Additionally she will consider whether the UK security regulations protect individuals from an abuse of power.

You can find out about Samantha’s research at


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