Unlocking the items he wanted, Burcks was soon on his way toward the exit with what police said was more than $2,600 worth of cellphone cases and battery packs hidden in a plastic tote container lying in a shopping cart, according to a Lake Wales Police Department report.
Such elaborate forms of shoplifting are a growing concern among retailers in Florida, according to the Florida Retail Federation and the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.
However, these methods are new to Lake Wales, police said.
“It’s definitely a unique case for us,” Deputy Chief Troy Schulze said Thursday. “Most of the things people use around here are cutting devices.”
Burcks pushed the cart through the store and past the cash registers toward a closed exit. While shoppers may not have noticed him, Wal-Mart loss-prevention officials did and had already called Lake Wales police. When Burcks spotted them, he turned around and attempted to hide the tote container before heading toward another exit.
Police stopped him, however, and searched him. Inside his right front pocket police say they found the device known as a hand key. It is about half the size of a Kit Kat candy bar and it enables would-be retail thieves to remove shoplifting protections from merchandise.
“These keys are used in house by retailers themselves to protect merchandise,” said Samantha Stratton, spokeswoman for the Florida Retail Federation. “Typically, they can be universal from some manufacturers.”
Hand keys unlock security devices — like the cases around DVDs or the tags that tether electronics to shelves — using strong magnets. When placed against a security device, the magnets in a hand key unlock the device allowing it to be opened, or detached, and the product removed. Some stores have the ability to detect the magnets through security towers placed at the entrance, but simple items, like tinfoil, can fool some security measures.
Hand keys have been used in theft for a while.
“We have seen several cases where a suspect has obtained a device and used it to access a locked area,” said Carrie Horstman, spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Office said.
Internet websites have forums dedicated to shoplifting and evading security tags. Instructional videos on how to use hand keys can be found on YouTube. Some forums and videos are as old as five years.
“Thirty dollars is a good investment; you’ll make triple easily within the first minutes of use,” a user named Kirby wrote on a Zoklet.net forum dedicated to shoplifting with Alpha s3 keys. “I stole a desktop PC from Wal-Mart with the use of this.”
Hand keys can be purchased online, usually only by qualified institutions, but by anyone on sites like Amazon and Craigslist.
Retailers on Amazon list the Alpha s3 key, one of the most common hand keys, for as little as $19.99, or $24.98 if shipped.
“It’s amazing what they’re talking about online,” Stratton said. “They have forums to discuss these highly illegal methods.”
In some instances, he said, FRF members have reported in-house hand keys being stolen and resold on the black market. Some, she said, have sold for as much as $1,000.
According to Stratton, some companies have begun to employ people who purchase hand keys from the black market to take them out of circulation.
Lake Wales Police Department sees these methods as a commitment to criminal activity they must do all they can to combat.
“Some people go to work every day feeling good about doing their job the best they can,” Schulze said. “Some go to work thinking how they can be the best criminal.”
Schulze said his department will communicate with other law enforcement agencies whenever new criminal tactics, like hand keys, pop up.