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Following the removal of pandemic related restrictions, retail theft has experienced a sharp increase in incidents, returning to pre-pandemic figures in both Greater Sydney and Regional New South Wales.

Incidents of retail theft, alike to many property crimes, fell significantly during the pandemic due to the closure of non-essential business, local travel limits and restrictions on gatherings and movement.

Retail theft is defined as theft from shops committed where people take away merchandise without paying for it.

Since restrictions were lifted in October 2021, retail theft offences have been steadily increasing, up 47.5% year-on-year to June 2023, as reported by the New South Wales Bureau of Crime and Statistics.

The report largely links this rise to the removal of restrictions, and notes that this figure does not support emerging external factors, such as the cost-of-living crisis, as driving an increase in this offence.

This is due to how the significant increase has brought to volumes equal to pre-pandemic levels, not above (in 2018/19 there were 26,131 incidents compared to 25,478 in 2022/23).

In analysing incidents of retail theft, it has been found that the most frequently stolen item is liquor (i.e., bourbon, whiskey, and vodka) in 37% of cases, followed by clothing (22%).

Retail theft of personal items, such as perfume and cosmetics, has declined in the past five years, and has recently only been stolen in 13% of incidents.

The average value of items stolen in retail theft incidents in 2022 – 2023 was $440.

The locations which have experienced the biggest increase in incidents include licenced premises and general wholesalers. This can be compared to department or clothing stores and chemists which have reported the largest decreases.

It is estimated that half of all retail theft offenders are aged 30 to 39 years.

However, when accounting for the population, those aged 14 to 17 years had the highest rate of involvement with NSW Police in relation to thefts.

It is estimated that the total value of all retail theft was $2.3 billion in the 2021/22 financial year.

It is important to note that shoplifting is an often under-reported crime due to the manner in which retailers themselves may be unaware of how much they lose to shoplifting or are reluctant to report the offence to police.

Shop-owners reluctance to report can stem from them thinking the police wouldn’t do anything about it, thinking they found out too late to report it, or that it wasn’t worth it.

In New South Wales, retail theft or ‘shoplifting’ is referred to as larceny and is criminalised under section 117 of the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW).

The prosecution is required to prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that:

  1. The property belongs to another,
  2. You took and carried it away without the owner’s consent or without the consent who had lawful possession of it,
  3. You had an intention of permanently depriving the owner of it,
  4. You did not have any claim of right to the property made in good faith.
  5. You took it dishonestly, knowing it belonged to someone else.

A maximum penalty of 5 years imprisonment is applicable if the matter is dealt with in the District Court. However, such matters are regularly dealt with in the Local Court.

If dealt with in the Local Court and the property is valued at $5,000 or greater, a maximum penalty of 2 years imprisonment and/or a fine of $1,100 is applicable.

If the property is less than $5,000, a maximum penalty of 12 months imprisonment and/or a fine of $5,500 is applicable.

However, if the property concerned is less than $2,000, the maximum fine applicable is $2,200.

Where the property involved does not exceed $300, police have the discretion (i.e., choice) to issue you with a $300 fine, in accordance with Schedule 4 of the Criminal Procedure Regulation 2017 (NSW).

This is referred to as a ‘criminal infringement notice’, and if it is paid, it will not show up on a criminal record. Whilst they may be disputed in court, you risk a criminal conviction and the maximum penalties outlined above, if the matter proceeds and you are found guilty.

Published on 02/10/2023

AUTHOR Poppy Morandin

Poppy Morandin is the managing law clerk and an integral part of the team of criminal lawyers at Criminal Defence Lawyers Australia . She's also a part of CDLA's content article production team. Poppy is passionate about law reform and criminal justice.

View all posts by Poppy Morandin