Store cashiers rely on bar codes printed on merchandise to keep things moving in the checkout lanes.
Now, clever Spokane thieves are relying on them to cash in.
Since August, at least three stores on the North Side and in the Valley have been hit by a bar code scam, in which codes on expensive products are switched with cheaper ones.
Pulling off the scam is a tedious process, but police believe one busy thief has raked in up to $1,000 a week by mastering it. They also said they don’t know how widespread the scam is, but think many more stores are being hit without knowing it.
“It’s hard for stores to figure out what’s happening,” said city detective Joe Walker, who spent Tuesday warning businesses about the rip-off. “By the time they do, there’s nothing they can do. It’s too late.”
The people doing the bar code switch in Spokane want more than just a bargain on breadmakers or cookware, Walker said. They want cash, and they usually get it.
Thieves tear the bar codes off products, usually small appliances that cost no more than $40, and leave the store. Then they go to a printing shop and photocopy the codes onto sticker labels. The thieves trim the labels and return to the same store.
Fake bar codes then are placed on more expensive items that the thief takes to a checkout lane. The cashier scans the item, the thief pays and leaves.
The ploy doesn’t necessarily end there, though.
A day or so later the thief may return the product to the store - with the forged label peeled off - and ask for a refund. Usually, customer service workers will accept the unopened package without a receipt and give cash to the thief.
“He pays $10 for a mixer that really costs $150 and then gets the $150 in cash when he brings it back,” Walker said. “The store doesn’t know the difference - not then, anyway. It’s hard to detect.”
The bar code scammers Walker is investigating are careful and specific about the items they buy. If they steal a bar code from a calculator that costs $9.99, they’ll be sure to put their copied label on another calculator - one that costs, say, $99.
That way, the word ‘calculator’ will still flash across the screen when the cashier scans the item. Chances are slim an employee will notice the price is wrong, Walker said. Most cashiers don’t look at the screen much, anyway.
“They get going ringing in the stuff and don’t pay attention to what the computer says people are buying,” he said. “They want to know the total. And make the right change.”
If they know the store requires a receipt to return the item for cash, bar code scammers can get one, police said.
They simply pull old receipts from garbage cans outside the store and look for ones with expensive items listed on them. Then the thieves go in the store, find the item on the receipt and put a fake bar code on it.
“There’s a way around everything,” said police spokesman Dick Cottam. “This is the way they make money.”
Detectives met with security officials at stores throughout the city Tuesday and urged them to watch for bar code forgers. Print shop workers also were notified of the scam.
While police have several suspects in the scam, no arrests have been made. Employees will have to catch thieves stealing codes off products or putting fake ones on before they can be arrested, Walker said.
Then they could be charged with forgery, a felony, rather than theft, a misdemeanor.
“They go through a lot to get money this way, but if it works, hey,” Walker said. “We just have to get the word out so people pay more attention to what they’re doing.”