Adam J. McKee, Ph.D.
Section 4.4: Hot Products
The article below was written by Ronald V. Clarke.
Crime is not spread evenly across all places, people or times and, to be effective, preventive measure must be directed to where crime is most concentrated. Focusing on ‘hot spots’ – those places with a high rate of reported crimes or calls for police assistance – has proved useful in directing police patrols and crime reduction measures. Similarly, giving priority to ‘repeat victims’ of crime has proved to be an effective use of preventive resources.
This publication argues that comparable benefits for prevention would result from focusing policy and research attention on ‘hot products’, those items that are most likely to be taken by thieves. These include not just manufactured goods, but also food, animals and works of art. The ultimate hot product is cash which helps determine the distribution of many kinds of theft, including commercial robberies, muggings, burglaries and thefts from ticket machines and public phone boxes.
A better understanding of which products are ‘hot’, and why, would help businesses protect themselves from theft and would help the police in advising them how to do this. It would help governments in seeking to persuade business and industry to protect their property or to think about ways of avoiding the crime waves sometimes generated by new products and illegal use of certain drugs. It would help consumers avoid purchasing items (such as particular models of car) that put them at risk of theft and may lead them to demand greater built-in security. Finally, improved understanding of hot products would assist police in thinking about ways to intervene effectively in markets for stolen goods. This publication is the first to review comprehensively what is known about hot products and what further research is needed to assist policy.
A review of the most stolen items for a variety of theft types led to some important conclusions, as follows:
- For each kind of theft, specific items are consistently chosen by thieves. In residential burglaries, for example, thieves are most likely to pick jewellery, videos, cash, stereos and televisions. In shoplifting, the items at risk depend on the store. Thus, book shops in America are most likely to lose magazines and cassette tapes, while groceries, supermarkets and convenience stores are likely to lose cigarettes, video tapes, beauty aids and non-prescription medicines.
- Despite this dependence on the setting, there is some consistency across settings in goods stolen. Certain items are at risk of being shoplifted wherever these are sold. These include cassettes, cigarettes, alcoholic drinks, and fashion items such as Hilfiger jeans and Nike training shoes. These are all enjoyable things to own and consume. The British Crime Survey shows that, for thefts involving personal possessions, cash is more frequently taken than anything else – followed in order by vehicle parts (even when car radios are excluded), clothing and tools.
- Which cars are most likely to be stolen depends on the purposes of theft. An American study found, for example, that joyriders prefer sporty models. Thieves looking for cars to sell, prefer expensive luxury models. Those seeking components to sell prefer models with easily-removable, good-quality, radios.
- Vehicle body-type helps determine which lorries and commercial vehicles are stolen. Vehicles used by the construction industry, such as tippers, seem particularly at risk. This may be the result of a thriving second-hand market, which would make these vehicles easier for thieves to sell.
- Though more research is needed, relatively few hot products may account for a large proportion of all thefts. For example, theft insurance claims for new cars in America in 1993-95 were twenty times higher for models with the worst theft record than those with the best.
Some of the key attributes of hot products are obvious, including their value, size and portability. These attributes are summarised by CRAVED, an acronym referring to six elements making products attractive to thieves: hot products must be concealable, removable, available, valuable, enjoyable and disposable.
While each of the elements of CRAVED may be important in explaining which products are stolen, how much they are stolen may depend critically on just one attribute — the ease of disposal. This reinforces the need for research into ways of disrupting theft markets, especially markets serving particular hot products. Other recommendations for policy-oriented research, include studies of the amounts of theft accounted for by hot products, when these products are most at risk, and who bears the costs of theft.
Policy makers also need research help with two vital tasks. First, they need help in anticipating and assessing technological developments that could result in new hot products and new ways of preventing theft. Right now, the potential needs to be assessed of several promising methods of establishing ownership and denying the benefits of theft. These methods include enhanced security coding of TVs and videos, tiny data tags that transmit signals that can be used to identify vehicles, micro-dot property marking and ‘smart water’ containing indelible dye. Second, they need help in finding ways to encourage business and industry to incorporate theft prevention in their products and their practices.
This assumes that hot products can be effectively protected without theft simply being displaced to other products. In fact, there is plenty of evidence this can be done. Thieves choose particular products for specific reasons, which other products may not satisfy. Moreover, studies of displacement in scores of settings have never found it to be one hundred percent. Indeed, rather than the risks being dispersed by prevention, its benefits have sometimes diffused beyond the focus of the measures. Offenders become aware that special measures are being taken, even if they do not know precisely their scope, and begin to exercise wider restraint.
More generally, the existence of large amounts of unprotected attractive property might both encourage habitual thieves to steal more, and tempt more people to try their hands at theft. If theft is made easy, there is likely to be more of it, and making it more difficult may lead to a more orderly, law-abiding society.
3. What makes products hot?
Routine activity theory and VIVA
Many of the attributes favoring theft have already been mentioned or are obvious from the nature of the goods taken. Thus, it is easy to see why thieves are so attracted to cash. Unless bank notes are marked or their serial numbers recorded, cash is anonymous and almost impossible to identify as stolen. It is comparatively lightweight and easy to conceal. And, unless in large denomination notes or small value coins, it can be immediately used by the thief.
Cohen and Felson specified the attributes promoting theft some twenty years ago in the course of their initial statement of routine activity theory, which holds that crime results from the convergence of a likely offender with a suitable target in the absence of a capable guardian. They defined suitable targets for crime in terms of their value, inertia, visibility and accessibility, which they encapsulated in the acronym VIVA.
VIVA was described in a single paragraph and was clearly not meant to be definitive. Cohen and Felson referred to its four elements as ‘such things’ determining target suitability. Their focus on the tangible attributes of targets reflected the ecological premises of their theory. In particular, it reflected their insistence that crime is a physical event occurring in the real world and that it cannot be adequately explained by the abstractions of class and structure favored by the theories of the day. So as to distance themselves further from traditional criminology, they made no distinction between human victims of predatory crime and other inanimate crime targets. For them, human targets were no less subject to ecological principles, and VIVA was as applicable to the victims of rapes or muggings as to the targets of theft.
Today, largely because routine activity theory is broadly accepted, these rhetorical needs are not so pressing. Moreover, other complementary theories, such as ‘rational choice’ theory, have been developed which give a greater role to offender motivation without treating this in the abstract, deterministic terms that Cohen and Felson had criticized. Consequently, more emphasis can now be placed on the judgments of target suitability made by offenders , and the dependence of such judgments on the offender’s specific motives or intentions, without comprising the essential, concrete nature of routine activity theory.
The interdependence of motives and objective features of the crime setting is captured by the rational choice concept of ‘choice structuring properties,’ which refers to the characteristics of specific offences which affect offender calculations of the ease, risks and rewards of committing particular kinds of crimes. The rewards of crime are heavily dependent on the careful choice of targets and it can be assumed that offenders will be much more attentive to the differences between human and inanimate targets than VIVA would suggest.
Choice structuring properties include those affecting decision making at the point of committing the crime, which seems to be the implicit focus of VIVA. Inertia, visibility and accessibility all seem particularly relevant at this stage. But choice structuring properties also have a role at earlier and later stages of crime. Thus, target characteristics may suggest the idea of theft to potential offenders and encourage them to seek out settings where desired products may be found. Target characteristics can also be important when it comes to concealing or disposing of stolen goods. This is explicitly noted in a recent study of the scope for disrupting markets in stolen electrical goods: ‘Criminals are interested in high value, portable items that are easy to dispose of and difficult to identify’. Indeed, representatives of manufacturers, rental companies, insurance companies and security firms interviewed about ways of disrupting the market in these goods felt that: ‘…the key issue was the unique identification of each electrical item. If this could be achieved, they felt, the problem would be well on the way to resolution.’
From VIVA to CRAVED As argued above, VIVA has some serious limitations as a model of hot products. First, it was intended to cover all targets of predatory crime, not just the targets of theft. Second, by avoiding any consideration of motivation, it neglected the specific motives for theft. Third, it neglected those target characteristics important when contemplating theft and when seeking to conceal or dispose of goods. These limitations are addressed in the modification of VIVA offered below, resulting in the six components of the ‘CRAVED’ model of theft targets. CRAVED also takes account of recent findings on hot products reviewed above.
- Available. Two of the four components of VIVA, visibility and accessibility, fall under a more general category of availability, which is a necessary condition of being hot: there was no car theft before cars were invented. At the macro level, the importance of availability is revealed in theft waves resulting from the introduction of attractive new products, such as the mobile phones or laptop computers, which quickly establish their own illegal market. At the intermediate (meso) level, availability is important in terms of the accessibility of hot products to thieves. For example, the fact that cars become at greater risk of theft as they become older, may be a function of changes in their ownership: as cars age and are resold, they are more likely to be owned by people living in poor neighborhoods, with less off – street parking and more offenders close by. At a micro level, availability may be expressed in terms of the visibility of objects at the point of theft. This is why householders sometimes try to conceal jewellery and cash from potential burglars.
- Valuable. As VIVA recognizes, thieves will generally select the more valuable goods. This is particularly true of goods that are sold rather than kept. For example, one reason that cars that are around five years old are more at risk of theft is because the value of their parts is greater than that of the whole stolen vehicle. Good s taken for personal use obviously have value for thieves themselves. Thus, the joyriders are more interested in a car’s performance than its financial value. Juvenile thieves, in particular, may select goods that are valued in the youth culture, whose ownership confers status. No doubt economists would like to reduce all these components of value to a particular currency value, but this seems unlikely to refine understanding of theft choices. Rather, this purpose will be served by considering separately the various components of value. Two components, in particular, merit separate treatment and these are distinguished below: the enjoyment of owning and using particular goods and the ease or difficulty of selling them.
- Enjoyable. Residential burglars are more likely to take videos and televisions than equally available or valuable electronic goods, such as microwave ovens or food processors. Though not so apparent when VIVA was formulated, a common strand running through the re s e a rch on hot products is that they are generally enjoyable things to own or consumer: alcoholic drinks; tobacco; cassettes; perhaps even condoms. This may reflect the pleasure-loving lifestyle of many thieves and the people who buy from them. Burney ’s interview study with street robbers in Lambeth re p o rted that the majority of the offenders interviewed said they robbed for money. ‘By their accounts they spent the money on expensive clothes, particularly the expensive ‘Nike’ trainers, luxuries and cannabis’.
- Disposable. Since many items are stolen to be sold to others, the thief will tend to select things that will be easy to sell. This may be obvious, but its importance for explaining crime has been neglected. Only recently, has systematic research begun on the intimate relationship between hot products and theft markets. Research by Langworthy and Lebeau has shown that the creation of a fencing market can stimulate theft. They showed that when police set up a ‘sting’ operation to buy stolen cars, this increased the rate of car theft in the immediate locality.
- Removable. As VIVA recognizes, products that are easily moved are more likely to be stolen. Much security practice focuses on making valuable products less easy to remove. Pease provides a wonderful example from the Wild West, where hold-ups of wagons and trains carrying silver from the mines of California became a serious problem: ‘It ceased when the silver was cast, not as smallish ingots, but as huge 600 pound lumps of metal’. How easily security measures can be defeated depends on the circumstances of theft. For instance, shoplifters are severely constrained in the number of bottles of whisky or packets of cigarettes they can steal without being noticed, but a ‘commercial burglar’ operating after hours may be able remove many cartons of alcohol and tobacco. This point is substantiated by the data from the Food Marketing Institute showing differences in what is stolen from supermarkets by shoplifters and burglars. Both groups target cigarettes, liquor, medicines and beauty aids, though these are taken in much larger quantities by the burglars.
- Concealable. Items which cannot be concealed on the person are more difficult for the thief to remove. Those that cannot be concealed afterwards, or that are easy to identify later are also less likely to be stolen. This is one reason why students write their names in their books and why cars must be registered and licensed. It helps explain why car thieves do not generally steal Rolls Royce cars for their own use. Leaving them parked outside their homes would attract too much unwelcome attention. They are much more likely to steal less valuable cars that merge into the surroundings. The same principle also helps explain why cars stolen in the United States for export to Mexico are mainly models that are also sold there legitimately. As a result, stolen cars do not stick out like sore thumbs. Other thefts may be concealed from even the owner. For example, it is much less risky to steal a Pound coin from a purse containing a lot of money than from one containing a little. In the same vein, Mars points out in Cheats at Work,‘…that large quantities of ‘unmeasurable material’ like bricks and coal are equally fiddleprone, because the agents of control do not know precisely how much is there at any one time.’
As argued above, VIVA was never intended to be a definitive model of hot products. Rather, it was a first attempt to summarize the attributes of the broader class of targets of predatory crime. Had the authors focused on targets of theft, they might have produced a somewhat different model. Their wider theoretical concerns also led them to avoid the more subjective elements of target choice, which would be given a greater role today, particularly in the more recently developed rational choice perspective on crime. Finally, they seemed to have paid more attention to the actual commission of crime than to the equally important stages of contemplating crime and concealing or disposing of goods. These theoretical limitations, together with the fact that VIVA was formulated before much research on hot products had been published, suggested that a more adequate model of target suitability could be developed. That offered above, which seeks to explain why hot products are so CRAVED by thieves, identifies six important properties: these products are generally Concealable, Removable, Available, Valuable, Enjoyable and Disposable. Of these six, VIVA did not sufficiently emphasize three -Concealable, Enjoyable, and Disposable – perhaps because it took too little account of what the thieves would do with the objects they steal.
Source. Home Office (United Kingdom). Hot Products: Understanding, Anticipating and Reducing Demand for Stolen Goods.
Modification History File Created: 08/10/2019 Last Modified: 08/13/2019
This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.