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Crime Analysis for Problem Solvers in 60 Small Steps

Crime Analysis for Problem Solvers in 60 Small Steps
Step 31: Know the products that are CRAVED by thieves

In line with the 80-20 principle (Step 18), not all products are equally at risk of theft because thieves are very picky about what they will steal. They focus on relatively few "hot products," such as cars, laptop computers, DVD players, and cell phones. The hottest product of all is cash, which Marcus Felson describes as "the mother's milk of crime." It is the most frequently stolen item in larcenies, burglaries, and robberies. It fuels robberies of banks and off-track betting shops, attacks on payphones, and muggings near ATMs.

People's possessions can help explain their victimization risks. For example, owning a car doubles the risk of becoming a crime victim, even when account is taken of relevant demographic and social variables. And the particular model of car owned can raise this risk many times over. To inform people about high-risk cars and to put pressure on manufacturers to improve security, the Highway Loss Data Institute in Washington, D.C. publishes annual data showing the number of theft-related insurance claims made for each model on the road. The table shows the five models with the highest and lowest theft claim frequencies (per 1,000 vehicles on the road) from among the 305 new models during 2001-2003. The Cadillac Escalade and Nissan Maxima had claim frequencies about 30 times higher than the five models with the lowest claims. Escalades were targeted for their custom wheels and Maximas for their high-intensity headlights, which also fit earlier models supplied without such lights.

Useful as these data are, they do not show which cars are most at risk from specific forms of theft. However, research undertaken in the 1980s found that the models preferred by joyriders were "muscle" cars with powerful acceleration, such as the Chevrolet Camaro. Those most often stolen and never recovered were expensive cars such as Lincolns and Mercedes, and those most often broken into and stripped of contents were European models, such as Volkswagens, with good radios that fit a variety of models. Domestic station wagons, the staples of family transport, were not at risk of any form of theft. These were inexpensive, had terrible radios, and joyriders wouldn't be seen dead in them.

Surveys undertaken by the Loss Prevention Research Council show that shoplifters consistently choose CDs, cigarettes, liquor, and fashion items such as Hilfiger jeans and Nike sneakers. Many of these things can readily be sold on the street or door-to-door in some places. Police have paid little attention to the fencing of stolen goods because it is difficult to prove and attracts relatively light sentences, but many departments now receive regular electronic reports on pawnshop transactions. Scanning these reports will help you keep informed about what burglars and others are stealing in your area. It will also help you think about how stolen goods are sold and ways of disrupting the market.

Highest Theft Claim Frequencies, 2001-03

Highest Theft Claim Frequencies, 2001-03 Claim Frequency
Cadillac Escalade EXT (2002-03) Large luxury pickup 20.2
Nissan Maxima (2002-03) Midsize 4-door car 17.0
Cadillac Escalade (2002-03) Large luxury SUV 10.2
Dodge Stratus/Chrysler Sebring Midsize 4-door car 8.3
Dodge Intrepid Large 4-door car 7.9
Lowest Theft Claim Frequencies, 2001-03
Buick LeSabre Large 4-door car 0.5
Buick Park Avenue Large 4-door car 0.5
Ford Taurus Large station wagon 0.5
Buick Rendezvous 4WD (2002-03) Midsize SUV 0.7
Saturn LW Midsize station wagon 0.7

Source: Highway Loss Data Institute (www.hldi.org)

The acronym CRAVED will help you remember which goods are most stolen. These are Concealable, Removable, Available, Valuable, Enjoyable, and Disposable:

  • Concealable. Things that can be hidden in pockets or bags are more vulnerable to shoplifters and other sneak thieves. Things that are difficult to identify or can easily be concealed after being stolen are also more at risk. In some cases, thefts may even be concealed from the owners of goods, as when lumber or bricks left lying around on building sites are stolen.
  • Removable. The fact that cars and bikes are mobile helps explain why they are so often stolen. Nor is it surprising that laptop computers are often stolen since these are not only desirable but also easy to carry. What is easy to carry depends on the kind of theft. Both burglars and shoplifters steal cigarettes, liquor, medicines, and beauty aids from supermarkets, but burglars take them in much larger quantities.
  • Available. Desirable objects that are widely available and easy to find are at higher risk. This explains why householders try to hide jewelry and cash from burglars. It also helps explain why cars become more at risk of theft as they get older. They become increasingly likely to be owned by people living in poor neighborhoods with less off-street parking and more offenders living nearby. Finally, theft waves can result from the availability of an attractive new product, such as the cell phone, which quickly establishes its own illegal market (see box).
  • Valuable. Thieves will generally choose the more expensive goods, particularly when they are stealing to sell. But value is not simply defined in terms of resale value. Thus, when stealing for their own use, juvenile shoplifters may select goods that confer status among their peers. Similarly, joyriders are more interested in a car's performance than its financial value.
  • Enjoyable. Hot products tend to be enjoyable things to own or consume, such as liquor, tobacco, and DVDs. Thus, residential burglars are more likely to take DVD players and televisions than equally valuable electronic goods, such as microwave ovens. This may reflect the pleasure-loving lifestyle of many thieves (and their customers).
  • Disposable. Only recently has systematic research begun on the relationship between hot products and theft markets, but it is clear that thieves will tend to select things that are easy to sell. This helps explain why batteries and disposable razors are among the most frequently stolen items from American drug stores.

The Rise and Fall of the Cloned Phone

When cell phones became popular, criminals found ways to clone them so that they could use them without paying any bills. They used scanners near airports and hotels to capture the numbers that each phone transmits in order to send and receive calls. They then created "clones" of the original phones by re-programming the numbers into phones they had stolen. The original phone would then be charged for calls made by the clone. This rapidly became big business. The top line in the graph shows that the cloning losses for all cell phone companies increased quite rapidly from June 1992 to June 1996 when they totaled nearly $450 million for the previous 6 months. (The losses were the charges that the phone companies wiped off the bills of legitimate subscribers whose phones were cloned.) At this point, the phone companies began to introduce a variety of technologies that made it much more difficult to steal phone numbers and to use a clone. There was a rapid reduction in cloning so that, by December 1999, it was all but eliminated. Incidentally, the second most common form of cell phone fraud, "subscription fraud" (opening an account with a false name and address), did not skyrocket when cloning was closed down, as displacement doomsters would predict. This could be because cloning was easy to "massproduce" by organized criminals, whereas subscription fraud is not.

Rise and Fall of the Cloned Phone

Source: Clarke, Ronald, Rick Kemper and Laura Wyckoff (2001). "Controlling Cell Phone Fraud in the U.S.," Security Journal, 14:7-22.

Read More

  • Clarke, Ronald (1999). Hot Products. Police Research Series. Paper 112. London: Home Office. (Accessible at: www.popcenter.org).