Carrie Jernigan is a criminal defense lawyer who is going viral on TikTok for telling her followers to avoid using self-checkout lanes. Her page is filled with tips about the legal system most people won’t know about. But her advice on avoiding self-checkout begged for an explanation. Her reason is simple: shoplifters.
Getting Charged With Shoplifting From a Self-Checkout Machine
In Jernigan’s first video, she lists a few things she will never do because of what she learned from being a lawyer. Item two, was to use a self-checkout lane, adding that the only ones benefiting from self-checkout are big box stores and criminal defense attorneys.
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In her follow-up, Jernigan goes into more detail. She explains there are typically three kinds of people who get charged with shoplifting after using a self-checkout machine. The first are what she called professional shoplifters. But the second group stole by mistake, which is where many people can run into issues. “These are the people that I genuinely think just forgot to scan an item,” she says. “It is usually something that was on the bottom rack of the cart … and when they are walking out, asset protection stops them.”
During the beginning of self-checkout, stores were lenient toward shoppers who forgot to scan one of their purchases. “They let almost all of these people either scan and pay for the item, or just let them go, but took the item they did not pay for,” she says. But this leniency is now gone.
Jernigan says that because shoplifting from self-checkout lanes has become more common and harder to pinpoint, stores don’t want to risk letting go of a thief who only claims the stealing was accidental. “They have lost all sympathy, and they are just taking a ‘Tell it to the judge’ approach,” she says.
Shoplifter until proven innocent
Finally, the third group of people who shoplift are “truly innocent,” according to Jernigan. They are usually charged a long time after they made their purchase. “It is something that [happens when] asset protection is doing a quality-control check, or inventory that weeks, days, months later comes up short. So they will begin watching hours of video to see the last person who checked out with the Mario Lego set because they’re two short or an Xbox game. And, for some reason, they pinpoint that they think you did it.” Essentially, during these checks, shoppers can get unfairly charged with theft because they had bought an item that went missing. Large retailers can press charges with “very little evidence” to prove their case.
Although shoplifting its often called a misdemeanor, some states in the U.S. can sentence shoplifters to prison for a year. And if the charge is a felony, the sentence can go much longer than that. To fight in court, according to Jernigan, “you have to spend thousands of dollars hiring a lawyer and we have to go through grainy video footage to try to determine what all you bought that day.”
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Don’t pay in cash
But Jernigan gives one final tip: Don’t pay in cash. Using a card creates tangible proof of what you bought, which is needed to prove your innocence in the case of a false charge. But even then, so much time, money, and effort has been wasted to fix these legalities. “At that point, so much damage has already been done,” she says. Which restates her original advice: Don’t use the self-checkout lanes.
In response to her video, some TikTok users shared personal experiences with accidental shoplifting. “My mom accidentally left a tiny $3 lemon oil in her cart after buying $300 in groceries. She was charged with theft and had to do community service,” wrote @lexiodens.
“Took me 7 months and cost me 6,000 to clear my name after I was falsely accused and the evidence should have exonerated me immediately,” @catladykaren added. A third commenter said they had “forgot to scan an item once & now there’s a photo of me in Walmart’s system.” 
“A crime of opportunity”
Self-checkout theft, the intentional kind, is an increasingly common issue. After all, it can seem easy to steal without getting caught, and many people rationalize doing it. For instance, the item has a broken barcode, so they don’t pay for it instead of asking for assistance. U.K. criminologist Adrian Beck calls it a crime of opportunity, and it makes average shoppers become “part-time thieves.” As he explained, “These aren’t people who are setting out in the day going, ‘You know what, I’m now going to go and steal some items from retailers.’ They’re just taking the opportunity that they are presented with at these machines.“
Many self-checkout thieves rationalize their behavior by blaming machine glitches or by blaming the self-checkout lanes in general. “‘Now I’ve got to bag my own stuff and I’ve got to check out myself … and it’s a little bit of a hassle, so, guess what, I get to take one or two things for free,’ that’s the mentality,” said Bob Moraca, vice-president of loss prevention at National Retail Federation in the U.S. There’s a feeling of anonymity; since no one’s watching, people are more likely to step out of line.
Beck said it’s difficult to differentiate between intentional and accidental self-checkout theft because it’s impossible to know the shopper’s intent. Plus, thieves trust they might get away with it if they feign ignorance. “You say, ‘Oh, goodness me, did I make a mistake? I’m terribly sorry,’” said Beck. Of course, this isn’t a given anymore.
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