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Do-it-yourself bar codes
May 22, 2012 11:16 PM   Subscribe

Has there ever been any advance in retailing that didn't in turn create a new opportunity for fraud? Take barcodes, for example: You can go to the store, buy a cheap box of Legos, and take it home. Then you use your computer to create peel-and-stick stickers with that same barcode on it. Now you go back to the store, pick up expensive boxes of Legos, and put your own stickers over their barcodes. Voila! You can now buy them for low price, and resell for a profit. That is what Thomas Langenbach is accused of having done, and it seems that he made over $30,000 reselling them on eBay.
posted by Chocolate Pickle (127 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
Its a good thing Thomas didn't know about this, otherwise I'm sure things might have gone differently.
posted by blaneyphoto at 11:26 PM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah that kind of thing has been around for a while. I guess it worked well for him because the receipt would probably just read "Lego", and the cashier would have no idea what was up.
posted by delmoi at 11:29 PM on May 22, 2012


Does anyone have a guess as to what the motivation was for this? From the description of the accused in the article, it seems unlikely that he would resort to this sort of petty crime just for the (relatively) small profits. Perhaps, though, he severely underestimated the risk? As an onlooker, it seems obvious that he was unlikely to get away with this for very long, but maybe from the inside, it seemed safe. If he's an executive living inside a $2m house, I could estimate he probably makes over $100k per year… To me, this doesn't add up.
posted by WaylandSmith at 11:32 PM on May 22, 2012


Don't be Fox News. It's Lego not Legos.
posted by schwa at 11:34 PM on May 22, 2012 [36 favorites]


Woah, here's something I didn't expect:
A top Silicon Valley executive used high-tech trickery to pull off low-tech fraud -- printing his own bar codes to buy Legos at big discounts, then selling them on eBay, according to police.

Thomas Langenbach, who lives in a $2 million home in San Carlos, Calif., and is a top executive at German software giant SAP, allegedly plastered his homemade bar codes on Legos at the Cupertino Target.
What the hell? The article says he might have cleared about $30k/year doing this. But it must have been a small fraction of his salary. I was expecting someone poor person who could barely afford a laser printer.

He looks somewhat confused himself in his mug shot.

This huffpo article says:
The Huffington Post contacted Target to determine whether SAP Labs and the retailer shared a business relationship that might have facilitated Langenbach's barcode scheme. A spokesperson for Target said that the company does not disclose details of its vendor relationships.
Obviously, you wouldn't really need any insider info. Just buy a cheap Lego set, and then scan the barcode at home.

Anyway, wow, what an idiot.
posted by delmoi at 11:36 PM on May 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


Boy, that Mercury News story was ridiculous. I never thought I'd look at a Fox News story and think it was better reporting than the one it summarized.
posted by kingv at 11:37 PM on May 22, 2012


I guess this was just some kind of hobby. I think he would have had a lot more fun getting into rare wine forgery.
posted by delmoi at 11:38 PM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


That's a lot of work for $30,000.
posted by unliteral at 11:39 PM on May 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


I don't think it will be long (maybe 10 years?) before optical recognition replaces barcodes. You wouldn't even need a clerk at that point.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 11:51 PM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


The real story is when he bricks out of jail.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:53 PM on May 22, 2012 [15 favorites]


I don't think it will be long (maybe 10 years?) before optical recognition replaces barcodes. You wouldn't even need a clerk at that point.
RFID. I don't think they will ever use optical recognition.
The real story is when he bricks out of jail.
Well, I'm sure he's shitting bricks right now.
posted by delmoi at 11:57 PM on May 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


I could estimate he probably makes over $100k per year… To me, this doesn't add up.

Much more. 100k is not getting you closeto multimillion dollar house territory any time quick.
posted by flaterik at 11:59 PM on May 22, 2012 [5 favorites]


RFID. I don't think they will ever use optical recognition.

Sure, RFID is harder to spoof than barcodes, but optical recognition would be cheaper than RFID and even cheaper than barcodes. Once the system is designed, you don't add any cost to the object.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 12:08 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, the pieces of this story don't fit together. It just doesn't play well as a whole. It's the very model of an oddball news story, because what kind of smart person would brick themselves in like that? Seriously, it just doesn't click, I can't puzzle it out. Barring some kind of weird personal coda where he felt guilty about indulging so heavily in a personal hobby and recognizing his own stripes, but I'm not sure where selling them off like a horse-thieves stolen studs fits into the scene, either.

Anyway, has anyone seen any smooth gray 2x2 or 1x2 tiles? I'm trying to finish this little space cruiser and I really want it to be symmetrical.
posted by loquacious at 12:10 AM on May 23, 2012 [25 favorites]


"Langenbach bought a $279 box of Millenium Falcon box of LEGOS (sic) for just $49, and he bought a $90 Anakin LEGO set for about $35."

Langenbach wasn't the first one to do this, 2005, $200K in stolen Lego sets. This earlier UPC swapper ended up serving a 13 month sentence for theft.
posted by jamaro at 12:17 AM on May 23, 2012


Be interesting to see if it was desperation at being wildly overextended, a compulsion, or what, assuming he's guilty as charged. Thing about eBay is it's a lot of work, really. He probably had automated systems in place, but it's still significant time posting, communicating, packaging and shipping. I would also think that a stockpile of the size mentioned wouldn't be wanted or necessary.

Maybe he's receiving an illegal substance or item via the lego purchases. Maybe it was a test run for a much larger operation. Maybe his family was kidnapped by a lego fanatic who is looking for gray tiles of a certain size, and he keeps buying them to find the right ones, but is short on cash. Hm.
posted by maxwelton at 12:28 AM on May 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


Just buy a cheap Lego set, and then scan the barcode at home.

Or you could just write down the UPC number. Or take a picture. Or use a smartphone barcode scanner in the store. You don't have to even buy one. Then use a barcode generator or mock it up yourself in a graphics program - the schema is public.

Sure, RFID is harder to spoof than barcodes, but optical recognition would be cheaper than RFID and even cheaper than barcodes. Once the system is designed, you don't add any cost to the object.

Barcodes are basically as free as printing ink on a package. Even with OCR you would still need some kind of commercial EDI/database system on the back end doing the linking of an image to a database entry and handling automated inventory.

It's much easier to use barcodes, so package designers don't have to conform to OCR standards for printing/packaging design outside of the barcode segment. Special packaging treatments like foils, gloss inks, florescent or spot colors would stymie most OCR systems without expensive high def cameras or multi-spectrum camera arrays.

There are also self-checkout lanes at many grocery stores. They have a basic security feature that uses a UPC scanner and a set of three electronic scales. When you remove items from the basket side of the checkout stand and scan them it compares the weights against a database. The third scale on the scanner is for calibrated/legal produce weighing.

But this is obviously spoofable, too.

RFID would eliminate a lot of that but still could be spoofed.

And with RFID, any nosy brat with a scanner could snoop what's in your bag at a distance.

"Going on a date,? Condoms, lube and a couple of bottles of wine, eh? What's the jello for, then? Nudge nudge."

And meanwhile under current law in many places an RFID-blocking bag would be considered intent to shoplift and a burglary tool.
posted by loquacious at 12:30 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


How did the clerks not catch on the first time...
posted by Slackermagee at 12:41 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Considering it seems illogical of him to do this for the slight gains relative to his assumed income, I would say he was just bored. This is what happens to people in today's society, job is not enough, so they find something else to do. Sadly this guy chose an illegal and idiotic way to take up his time, but nonetheless same principle. Shows you how easy retail is to dupe.
posted by Prudentia at 12:45 AM on May 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm guessing it was some weird kind of kleptomania. If the guy was really a major executive and felt desperate for money, you'd think his first impulse would be to set up some sort of white-collar crime involving his company; there would be a hell of a lot more reward possible, and probably less punishment if he was caught.
posted by Mitrovarr at 12:53 AM on May 23, 2012 [9 favorites]


Barcodes are basically as free as printing ink on a package. Even with OCR you would still need some kind of commercial EDI/database system on the back end doing the linking of an image to a database entry and handling automated inventory.

I'm imagining optical recognition of the whole package, not scanning text on the package. So, it saves you from manually scanning the bar code. It also saves some real estate on the packaging itself. If you can tell what something is by eye, surely a computer (someday) can tell what it is.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 1:06 AM on May 23, 2012


Reminds me of the case of a woman in Australia - who embezzled millions of dollars to spend on expensive jewelry, which she never opened or wore. Apparently she liked buying the jewelry because it made her feel wealthy and gained her friendship with the storepersons, who got commissions based on her sales. She never used any of the money to pay off her mortgage, and was still living in a normal house for someone of her means.

Basically some people are crazy.
posted by xdvesper at 1:29 AM on May 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


I don't think it will be long (maybe 10 years?) before optical recognition replaces barcodes. You wouldn't even need a clerk at that point.

Then people could wear padded gloves that made their hands look bigger, and they would only be charged for the smaller package of the same item.
posted by StickyCarpet at 1:36 AM on May 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


Anyone willing to pay for their individual bricks, of any dimension, can find them here.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 1:41 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Considering it seems illogical of him to do this for the slight gains relative to his assumed income, I would say he was just bored.

There is the challenge of it -- similar to how infidelity can lead to higher rates of pregnancy. There's an adrenaline rush that comes from escaping danger; regardless of if the danger is self-created. Extreme sports have shown that adrenaline can be quite addictive, regardless of consequence. It's almost as if this chaps life was too easy – boring – thus he found a way to make it interesting. The financial risk/gain calculus is interesting only in that it's a way to keep score. If you've watched friends formally or informally bet on sports matches, there's a huge change in their emotional state toward the match if they've bet. For a bet gives their opinion about who is going to win or lose tangible and productive, thus there's a greater engagement in that opinion.

When eBay first came out many years ago, there was a fellow who worked out a similar eBay trick. He was a business student (that will become quite obvious) with a good job and bright future. He was not a wealthy chap, nor was he by any stretch in hard times. He had a great relationship with his family, was a popular student, and lived a generally good life.

As a child, he had a predilection for baseball cards; he had thousands of them that were neatly categorised (fitting of a to-be accountant). On a lark, he began having them graded. Grading is the process by which one sends a baseball card to a grading agency who values it, and optionally puts the card in a sealed plastic case with the grade marked on the outside, verifying its authenticity and value.

Simultaneously, he had been spending a lot of time on eBay, outfitting his residence and generally enjoying, what was at that time, the novelty of the platform. He found sellers offering sealed boxes of baseball cards from various years gone by. He began ordering boxes and combing through them for potentially-valuable cards. Depending on the season and if memory serves, the boxes were in the realm of thirty to one hundred dollars. If he found a mint-condition card of value, he would send it off and have it graded (another twenty five dollars or so), and then turn around and sell the graded card on eBay for a hundred. In six months, he was making a tidy return of 25% or so. However, it was as mentioned, quite a lot of work as he had to receive the boxes, comb through all the cards, catalogue each by value, and then send them for grading, list them on eBay, and ship the graded cards off.

Simultaneously, he was having his own cards from childhood graded, some to values of three and four hundred dollars. He was not selling these, rather building them up as a kitty of sorts. He reached the value of around ten thousand in rare graded cards. One day, he was handling a graded card of high-value when he squeezed the case a bit. It popped open, breaking its seal. He was a bit upset, as that meant he would have to have it graded again. He tried to repair the case by squeezing it shut again to no avail. But the spark of ingenuity had already ignited.

Over a few weeks, he found a way to reseal the case. He took it to a local dealer and its value remained constant; the professional dealer did not find anything amiss. Thus it begins.

Our hero realised that he could buy boxes of used cards off eBay by year. He then sorted through the boxes and created sets of cards that – if graded highly – sold for substantial prices. He then sought out a highly graded card from the same year and purchased it. He took the graded card out of its case, and would send in the card repeatedly over the next few months, generating a supply of cases with high-grade marks. The cases were matched to players, years, and card types, but there was no individual card matching done. Thus, he would take cards that would be ranked as 3 or 4, and place them in cases ranked 5. He used his Secret Sealing Method to close the cases. He then sold the cards in a variety of places, from local shops to more distant shops, and also on eBay. His profit margin exploded to several hundred percent. Within a very short time, he was awash in cash. Yet he held onto all of it, in tidy shoeboxes, catalogued with the same precision as the cards.

He had previously chattered quite a bit about his card trading and suddenly he never spoke of it, beyond an affirmative grunt that he was still doing it. His eBay rating and reputation were spotless; every customer satisfied, some thinking him for including a few more cards from the year as a bonus. He became more bold, buying older groups of cards and repeating the process; some cards had costs in the hundreds and generated several sales in the middle thousands. The money grew, to a kitty of $50k, a lot of cash for a college student to have in his bedroom. Yet, he never really spent it. He lived simply, he complained if someone ordered a Sierra Nevada on his tab instead of a Bud Light. It wasn't about the money I don't think. Rather, it was about the ledger sheet as a scoreboard. He was accumulating points, and getting away with it. He was actively committing fraud yet as he worked alone and out of sight, there was no proof of his activities. As grading is pseudo-scientific exercise, there is no way the grading company could prove that what was in the case later was any different from what they had returned.

Eventually, he was discovered. He never knew how they found out. He presumed one of the cards had gone for a much higher amount, and a secondary grading was done to ensure authenticity. Once that had been discovered, the ruse was up quite quickly he imagined. One evening, there was a knock on his door. Opening it, he saw two Secret Service agents. They politely asked him if they could enter. They sat down at the woodgrain table on which he had processed tens of thousands of cards, and told him that he had been identified as the potential source of a large quantity of counterfeit sports memorabilia. They did not yet have the required evidence to file charges, however they were pursing that evidence. If he was a party to these activities, this would be his one change to cease and potentially escape 'life-changing prosecution'. He was to turn the details of his eBay account over to them immediately for investigation, and they recommended that there was to be no further activity on that account. That would not be an admission of guilt, but rather cooperation in an investigation. He did, under his own stupid assumption that he could not incriminate himself. (Thankfully he never had to test that assumption)

"Thank you, sir, and good evening." And they left.

He was on edge for about two weeks after that, waiting for the other shoe to drop. He never logged into the eBay account. He sold all the cards in his possession at a swap meet. One big box, one customer, a very reasonable price. He kept the kitty of the best graded cards, now worth $50k or so. And then were was the pile of cash. He quit his job and was able to live quite well for the next two years on that cash. Not extremely well, but well-enough.

I retell this story, for it wasn't about the money, and it wasn't about 'getting away with it'. It was about the score. The money represented the score, but it was not the score itself. It was a proxy for how well he was doing. He never spent it for that would lower his score. I think he liked looking at the cash, and knowing that in a way, he had earned by exploiting a crack in the system. To spend it would have defiled it. Thus the complex motivations that live within each of our minds. Once the game was over, there was no reason not to spend it.

As a coda, he quickly became an individual of great integrity, and nearly a whistleblower. He was speaking out against the sub-prime mortgage crisis from the beginning. He recognised what cracks in the system looked like, and when they were being exploited. His foresight did a tremendous service to his employers and clients, in terms of minimising their exposure to the crisis. He was at a party and yelled at a mortgage broker for taking advantage of other people. He could have made a tidy fortune timing the subprime market, but he didn't. I think because he still felt a bit guilty somewhere. After the crisis unfolded and he saved a few people from losing a lot of money, at that point, I think he considered the slate to be clean.
posted by nickrussell at 1:45 AM on May 23, 2012 [150 favorites]


I'm imagining optical recognition of the whole package, not scanning text on the package. So, it saves you from manually scanning the bar code. It also saves some real estate on the packaging itself. If you can tell what something is by eye, surely a computer (someday) can tell what it is.

I understand what you're saying and I'm replying as someone who understands the printing/packaging industry and how digital cameras and machine vision works and how hard it is to do reliably.

To do the sort of "optical recognition" you're talking about, you're really talking about machine vision or computer vision.

The kind of machine vision you're talking about wouldn't be cheap or simple even today - especially with the wide variety of printing technology and substrates out there, and the wide variety of lighting and environments. Not all inks or substrates will actually be visible to a standard video camera, which is why machine vision setups sometimes use a high def color camera combined with an IR or UV camera backed up by very bright, specially tuned lights.

Even today machine vision generally only works reliably if you can tune it to a select, finite number of objects with carefully controlled lighting and backgrounds. It's good at, say, picking out uniform objects from a background to pick them and place them, or rejecting bad potato chips out of a stream of a certain kind of potato chips that are are alike.

But it's not so good at recognizing a potato from a whole pile of yams, or picking out any and all kinds of packaging out from the background of any kind of store, or while any kind of person is holding it while wearing any kind of clothes. This is much more difficult.

Barcode scanners themselves are very cheap and reliable and can be as simple as a light source and a old school photocell, or as complex as scanned lasers and tracking optics.

Printing barcodes is super cheap and doesn't really get in the way of package design or material choices. Barcodes are basically digital optical systems, so almost any contrasting ink or print will usually work with a modern scanner (even if the strict specification is black on white).

Packaging design industry would also throw a fit about being constrained to specific parameters to make OCR/machine vision easier, and retailers would throw a fit about having to reprogramming the links in their database every time a package design changed.

You could, of course, use some invisible UV ink in, say, a pattern on the package somewhere to make recognition easier in all environments, and lighting, and even if the packaging design changed... but we're back to barcodes and you can see where I'm going.

Barcodes are basically foolproof and have a simplified error correction built in, with cheap and reliable end scanners available from many competing sources.

And bar codes are not a broken system at all. Barcodes are actually a very clever and efficient system, an invention on par with the telephone or computer itself. You can use them in nearly any environment, in any light, or even while it's dark since scanners mostly self-illuminate, or even underwater or while wet. They can be smudged or distorted a great deal and they'll still work. With modern scanners they can nearly any kind of material or color as long as there's enough contrast, and even very simple and inxpensive electronics can make a more basic barcode scanner that works fine.

In the end you're trying to reinvent the wheel with something much more complex or costly with very little benefit to anyone in the chain except for maybe machine vision providers/contractors.

Sure, it could be done but the economics is prohibitive and there really isn't a benefit over bar codes to justify the investment, so there really isn't a market for it in retail.
posted by loquacious at 1:48 AM on May 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


Reminds me of the case of a woman in Australia - who embezzled millions of dollars to spend on expensive jewelry, which she never opened or wore.

Similarly, the Koss CFO who stole millions from the company, much of which wsa spent on clothes she didn't have time to wear, so they filled up an entire apartment she rented as a sort of storage closet.
posted by dhartung at 1:51 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


loquacious: Yes, barcodes are great, and there are some challenges for machine vision, but ten years is a long time.

with very little benefit to anyone in the chain except for maybe machine vision providers/contractors.

The idea is to more easily eliminate the clerk who has to scan your items.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 1:59 AM on May 23, 2012


Great comment, nickrussel!
posted by Harald74 at 1:59 AM on May 23, 2012


especially with the wide variety of printing technology and substrates out there, and the wide variety of lighting and environments. Not all inks or substrates will actually be visible to a standard video camera, which is why machine vision setups sometimes use a high def color camera combined with an IR or UV camera backed up by very bright, specially tuned lights.


I know this used to be true, but I'm not sure if this is true anymore. Good cameras are very cheap. Can you not tell one lego set from another given a photo taken with a new camera phone?
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 2:12 AM on May 23, 2012


If he calls it 'Legos' too I hope they give him the chair.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 2:27 AM on May 23, 2012


Sure, RFID is harder to spoof than barcodes, but optical recognition would be cheaper than RFID and even cheaper than barcodes. Once the system is designed, you don't add any cost to the object.
Huh? How is RFID expensive? A chip costs about $0.05. I suppose it's not Free, might add a noticeable cost to the price of a candy bar or something. That's actually more expensive then the labor cost of hiring someone at $10/hr to sit there and scan stuff all day, though (if the average scan is two scans per second, then you can do 3,600 scans an hour, or a cost of $0.005/scan. So about 1/10th as much as RFID - but you'd have better customer satisfaction, as people would move through lines more quickly, etc)

The thing is, though, you don't actually have to be able to see the object in order to sense it with RFID. So, you pile all your stuff into a basket, then just walk between a scanner and the price will be automatically calculated, and deducted from your RFID enabled credit cards* .

It doesn't matter how good your optical recognition is, you won't be able to detect products piled under other products

And I just don't think computer vision will ever be that accurate. Maybe if you had a super-HD camera and a ton of CPU power. I mean, can you tell the difference between a Mars bar and a Snickers bar from a low-res, partially obscured webcam shot? How about the fact that packaging regularly changes for promotional reasons? Can you do it accurately 99.9% of the time? Even if you have a 99.95% accuracy rate, an error of 1/200 means that if the average person buys 20 items on average, they'll have a problem 1 every ten trips to the store. That's... not what you want in retail)

(*Now, you might say that would never happen because it would be stupid for credit cards to put RFID chips in credit cards that can be read while the card is in your pocket. And it's true that it would be stupid. But they've already done it. In fact there are already companies selling RFID proof wallets

Anyway, even if credit cards can't be used that way, stores could create loyalty dongles that let you pay without actually doing anything. Otherwise you'd walk through, be presented a total, and swipe your card)
I know this used to be true, but I'm not sure if this is true anymore. Good cameras are very cheap. Can you not tell one lego set from another given a photo taken with a new camera phone?
Again, the question isn't "Can you do it?" but rather "can you do it correctly 9999 times out of 10,000?" And the answer is probably No and probably always will be.

Machine vision is getting pretty advanced. But I've never heard of that kind of accuracy. Plus, like I said: packaging changes from time to time, but UPCs don't. And with RFID, you don't even need any line of site at all.
Considering it seems illogical of him to do this for the slight gains relative to his assumed income, I would say he was just bored. This is what happens to people in today's society, job is not enough, so they find something else to do. Sadly this guy chose an illegal and idiotic way to take up his time, but nonetheless same principle. Shows you how easy retail is to dupe.
Except, he didn't succeed.

It's actually not like they wouldn't notice after a while. These retail stores track every single inventory item in a database. They might not notice missing items right away, the database would still show them as being on the shelf. But they would definitely be able to notice selling extra stuff, more copies of the cheap sets then the expensive ones.
I'm guessing it was some weird kind of kleptomania. If the guy was really a major executive and felt desperate for money, you'd think his first impulse would be to set up some sort of white-collar crime involving his company; there would be a hell of a lot more reward possible, and probably less punishment if he was caught.
Yeah, must get some kind of thrill stealing stuff from a retail store. this guy was making $161k a year in the bush administration and was actually a judicial nominee when he tried to pull some 'return stuff you haven't bought' scam, also at Target (and another store)

It must be a compulsion. I mean, $30k? And this guy was an executive, making, probably, hundreds of thousands of dollars? Why not just hire a shady manufacturer in China to make counterfeit Lego kits? You could even have them shipped from outside the country to avoid getting caught with a huge haul of counterfeit goods yourself.

It really does remind me of the wine guy. He was making millions of dollars selling false-labeled wine, but he was doing at home with a friggin laser printer - he did all the work himself, so everyone knew he was buying cheap old wines, collecting bottles, and so on. A little more thought, and a little more care, and he could have gotten away with it for a lot longer.

Anyway, here's the thing. It always seems like these people are usually pretty stupid -- but for the most part, they're the ones who get caught. Guys like Rodenstock did get called out, but so far he's avoided any actual legal trouble, presumably because he's not an idiot. There could be lots and lots of people out there, quietly running a scam and not doing anything stupid, and getting away with it.
posted by delmoi at 2:32 AM on May 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


Just goes to show that even the wealthy sometimes get bricked by reality.
posted by Estraven at 3:04 AM on May 23, 2012


much of which wsa spent on clothes she didn't have time to wear, so they filled up an entire apartment she rented as a sort of storage closet.

I, and apparently lots of others, have the same problem with games on Steam. Buy, then never play.

Then again, we don't usually embezzle money to fuel our addiction.
posted by ymgve at 3:17 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I doubt there's ever been an advance in anything that didn't in turn create a new opportunity for fraud.
posted by The Card Cheat at 3:36 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Don't be Fox News. It's Lego not Legos.

Why is this a thing? If "Toyota cars" can be shortened to "Toyotas," and "Ford trucks" to "Fords," then "Lego bricks" can be shortened to "Legos."
posted by explosion at 3:43 AM on May 23, 2012 [18 favorites]


Why is this a thing? If "Toyota cars" can be shortened to "Toyotas," and "Ford trucks" to "Fords," then "Lego bricks" can be shortened to "Legos."

Not on my watch.
posted by unSane at 3:45 AM on May 23, 2012 [10 favorites]


Why is this a thing?

Because lego is its own plural. 'Legos' is a weird Americanism.

That said:

Has there ever been any advance in retailing that didn't in turn create a new opportunity for fraud?

Did people not do this very same thing with adhesive price stickers? I'm pretty sure I recall that being a thing when I was in school.
posted by pompomtom at 3:58 AM on May 23, 2012


Yeah, the pieces of this story don't fit together. It just doesn't play well as a whole. It's the very model of an oddball news story, because what kind of smart person would brick themselves in like that?

There are people who are addicted to shoplifting - not doing it out of necessity to feed themselves, nor as a source of income, but because they feel clever in gaming the system and getting something for nothing, or because they feel that corporations deserve the hit in profits. It's what I thought of when realising that this guy was a man of means, because sometimes people just like the thrill. It's like gambling - I find selling things on eBay can give me a similar thrill, because I want to see how much they go for - but with the law rather than with a roulette wheel.
posted by mippy at 4:12 AM on May 23, 2012


He reached the value of around ten thousand in rare graded cards. One day, he was handling a graded card of high-value when he squeezed the case a bit. It popped open, breaking its seal. He was a bit upset, as that meant he would have to have it graded again.

We don't have baseball cards here, so what cachet does a grading agency have? In other collectables I've dealt with, people just assess for condition then look up the item in the relevant price guide. Is it harder to sell cards without having gone through this process? It seems quite a bureaucratic and expensive way to value a collection to me.
posted by mippy at 4:15 AM on May 23, 2012


"Legos" is not a weird Americanism. I'm Spanish and I have always called the bricks "legos". Among other things, Spanish doesn't have the strict countable/uncountable syntactic distinction, and many things that are a singular uncountable for my Australian wife (asparagus, spaghetti, lego) are a plural for me (asparagus are nice, spaghetti are filling, and legos are fun to play with).

Listen, guys. I understand you guys like LEGO(TM). So do I. But I don't let them dictate that I use language to suit their trademark policy.
posted by kandinski at 4:16 AM on May 23, 2012 [31 favorites]


At the LEGO stores here (don't know about elsewhere), you can pick up the box and hold it in front of a scanner and monitor. It shows the finished kit superimposed over the box you are holding.

If they put *those* at the checkouts....

"Sir, I think I'm supposed to see a Super Star Destroyer here, not LEGO Spongebob..."
posted by jim.christian at 4:21 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I believe almost anyone I've known who stole did so primarily for the thrill, certainly all the shoplifters I knew in high school did so. It's true they wanted the stuff, but they confuse their desire for stuff and for thrills, mostly that's just poor self-knowedge. If you need that mixed thrill, then ride the subway without paying or something. If you want a real thrill, then learn skydiving, surfing, buy a motorcycle, etc.

As an aside, I've heard about people printing barcode stickers merely for revenge against stores they felt cheated by.
posted by jeffburdges at 4:23 AM on May 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Kandinski, I'll give you spaghetti because it's actually a plural already (just one spaghetto, give it to me, delicious pasta, of Italeee...); but don't you need to do something to asparagus to pluralise it: asparaguses, asparagi - asparageese?

Personally I have no desire to stop people using 'legos' so long as they don't want to stop me saying things like 'there was lego scattered all over the floor'. Deal?
posted by Segundus at 4:51 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Has there ever been any advance in retailing that didn't in turn create a new opportunity for fraud?

Og not give me five shiny rocks for one fish! Og give me one shiny rock five times for one fish! Me eat Og.
posted by pracowity at 4:56 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Here's the deal, Lego. You go back in time to the eighties and stop your product's disappointing slide into genderedness, and I'll stop pluralizing your brand name. Until then, LEGOS LEGOS LEGOS I DON'T CARE.

As far as this guy - with just about any Ebay seller who sells brand-new merchandise from one or two brands, I'm automatically suspicious that some sort of fraud's going on, whether the product is fake or stolen or what.
posted by Metroid Baby at 5:00 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm voting for kleptomania. Or he really hated working at SAP and just wanted his own little shop.
posted by sneebler at 5:00 AM on May 23, 2012


Listen, guys. I understand you guys like LEGO(TM)

I was hoping we wouldn't have to do this again but them's fightin' words.

You have a set of wood blocks that you play with. What do you do them them? Do you go build something out of your woods? Do you say "Hey dad, want to play with my woods?"

This is where we fans of playing with LEGO COULDN'T GIVE A FLYING FUCK ABOUT TM are coming from.
posted by Jimbob at 5:02 AM on May 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


I so don't have this mentality, except when it comes to stealing friends french fries, but that's about it. This is not a new scam by any means though.
posted by BrotherCaine at 5:06 AM on May 23, 2012


Reminds me of (the awesome movie) My Blue Heaven.
posted by inigo2 at 5:18 AM on May 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Son of a.... how did I not see that last comment? I quit.
posted by inigo2 at 5:19 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


As a coda, he quickly became an individual of great integrity, and nearly a whistleblower. He was speaking out against the sub-prime mortgage crisis from the beginning.

The bankers involved with this, unlike the bar code mad, got no jail time.

I don't think it will be long (maybe 10 years?) before optical recognition replaces barcodes. You wouldn't even need a clerk at that point.

More people will be out of work. This is how our economy works!
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:23 AM on May 23, 2012


Obviously the plural is Legoi.
posted by kyrademon at 5:28 AM on May 23, 2012 [6 favorites]


Secundus, of course I never correct people who use uncountable "lego". Potato, potahto.

However, and I should probably be arguing this with Mrs Kandinski, not with you, if someone serves you a plate of asparagus, do you say "the asparagus is nice" or "the asparagus are nice"? Because I only say "is" when there is one asparagus.
posted by kandinski at 5:31 AM on May 23, 2012


As an eBay employee, I'd like to point out that the vast majority of transactions on our site are legitimate and gratifying to both parties, that we do not condone fraud, and that we are constantly working to eliminate it. Thank you for your time.
posted by Trurl at 5:37 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


If the cops confiscated all the stolen merchandise as evidence, they better call Tolkien because that dude is Lego-less.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 5:38 AM on May 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


This is where we fans of playing with LEGO COULDN'T GIVE A FLYING FUCK ABOUT TM are coming from.

You aren't going to convince the descriptivists. Legos are Lego blocks if that's what people say they are.

I'm just sad this is a Nigerian scam so we could get a Legos/Lagos thing going.
posted by pracowity at 5:40 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


They're called "Legos" because that's what people call them.
posted by Legomancer at 5:40 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


If the cops confiscated all the stolen merchandise as evidence, they better call Tolkien because that dude is Lego-less.

If he escapes, he'll be on the Lego lamb.
posted by pracowity at 5:41 AM on May 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm just sad this isn't...
posted by pracowity at 5:42 AM on May 23, 2012


Dr. Who would never call them Legos.
posted by rocket88 at 5:43 AM on May 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


Can you do it accurately 99.9% of the time? Even if you have a 99.95% accuracy rate, an error of 1/200 means that if the average person buys 20 items on average, they'll have a problem 1 every ten trips to the store. That's... not what you want in retail)

Barcodes fail to scan sometimes too, and one of the positive aspects is that there's generally a human readable numerical code that corresponds exactly to the barcode one in the system. If you go with optical recognition, there has to be some manual backup for when the system fails, which means you still need to print a code of some sort on each product. And that code needs to stay the same across product packaging changes, so that the store's internal system always knows how to match up the product ID to the price. So if you were making an optical system you would probably want it to still read that code off, which means facing a particular part of the product at the camera, at which point you've basically built a more expensive and failure-prone barcode scanner.
posted by burnmp3s at 5:44 AM on May 23, 2012


do you say "the asparagus is nice" or "the asparagus are nice"?

Somehow it's never come up... but to borrow your phrase, that's probably something I should be arguing with Mrs Segundus ;)

(I take your point, though)
posted by Segundus at 5:47 AM on May 23, 2012


UPC barcodes also include a checksum, which is why while they will often fail to scan, it is extremely rare for them to scan as a wrong alternate code.

As to the thrill of kleptomania, back when I was advantage play gambling (which is legal) I noticed that this was a common motivator; people who didn't need to do it, and were putting far more effort into card counting than they would have put into a similarly paying job, were doing it because it was more satisfying to stick it to the casino than to work.
posted by localroger at 5:50 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Lends some credence to the notion that the business world naturally selects for psychopathy.
posted by deathpanels at 5:50 AM on May 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm going to keep on "Legos"-ing for as long as the Brit weirdos keep "maths"-ing.
posted by like_neon at 5:52 AM on May 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


You have a set of wood blocks that you play with. What do you do them them? Do you go build something out of your woods? Do you say "Hey dad, want to play with my woods?"

You have a flock of sheep that you own. What do you do them them? Do you go and shear your sheeps? Do you say "Hey time to go shear the sheeps?"
posted by EndsOfInvention at 5:54 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was expecting someone poor person who could barely afford a laser printer.

I think the problem is conflating mortgaged wealth with actual wealth. If you have a $2 million house and can't afford the mortgage payments anymore... maybe $30k extra cash looks nice.
posted by smackfu at 5:57 AM on May 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm voting for kleptomania. Or he really hated working at SAP and just wanted his own little shop.

It seems more likely that the guy has either a gambling problem or a Rielle Hunter problem - which is to say he doesn't need money, he needs cash that he can hide from his wife. John Edwards had plenty of money, but he couldn't pay Ms Hunter without the former Mrs Edwards becoming aware of it so he turned to crime. I'd bet this guy's backstory isn't all that different.
posted by three blind mice at 5:57 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


You have a set of wood blocks that you play with. What do you do them them? Do you go build something out of your woods? Do you say "Hey dad, want to play with my woods?"

And yet, I feel that would be better phrasing than "Hey, dad, want to play with my wood?".
posted by Defying Gravity at 6:02 AM on May 23, 2012 [12 favorites]


I'm imagining optical recognition of the whole package, not scanning text on the package. So, it saves you from manually scanning the bar code. It also saves some real estate on the packaging itself. If you can tell what something is by eye, surely a computer (someday) can tell what it is.
Sort of - Like happens at real full service Lego stores, Target or other merchandise seller (why is it Target? Does Mal-Wart and KSmart not sell Lego?) upgrades their scanning system to scan the item and pop up a picture of the item, and the clerk plus an OCR system / eye in the sky like on self-shop registers as backup verifies it. Makes it a bit harder to achieve this level of larceny without complicity for very long.

One thing I've seen Dillard's do is put an extra sticker on the tag of something purchased (Maybe it was high end stuff, maybe it was easily shop-liftable stuff, I was buying thingies for a fancy-dress party) that is nearly a serial number that links that item to a specific transaction, without which the item will not be accepted for return. We might get to the point where we're "serial numberlizing" pretty much everything. Then the UPC and the serial number and the image has to match to process a sale.

Until someone breaks the serial number + UPC combo. Right now it would be "buy a cheap item, copy the UPC and serial numbers, return the item, print stickers and stick on more expensive item, then whoever buys the cheap stuff is screwed.".
posted by tilde at 6:10 AM on May 23, 2012


I've found that anything you dip in the half-price bin immediately becomes half-price.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:11 AM on May 23, 2012


Barcodes, security devices on clothing, and the scary beeping thing that goes off when you leave the store are all part of the theater of retail security. Having worked in retail, the big stores don't care about shoplifters very much. They keep account of a certain amount of loss in their books averaged over years, so small losses don't impact their bottom line. Most big retail chains in the U.S. don't prosecute shoplifters (which is why the ones that do make a point of saying it), and it is sometimes against company policy to even accuse someone of shoplifting in the store. I would guess this is because the legal ramifications around employees accusing and detaining innocent customers is too messy. The security technology you find in an average American shopping mall is designed to discourage theft, not to unerringly prevent it.
posted by deathpanels at 6:11 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Lego Legolas
posted by jeffburdges at 6:14 AM on May 23, 2012


The plural of Lego is Legosauri.
posted by moneyjane at 6:14 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Do you say "Hey dad, want to play with my woods?"

Sure, if we're playing golf.

Later we'd go skating on our Rollerblade skates and maybe play that game you play with POG lids.

The third scale on the scanner is for calibrated/legal produce weighing. But this is obviously spoofable, too.

A friend of mine claimed to regularly use the produce scale to buy expensive non-produce things (like batteries) at the very favorable banana rate.
posted by fleacircus at 6:14 AM on May 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


Don't be Fox News. It's Lego not Legos.

You know what? From now on, it's Legoz. Just for you, baby.
posted by adamdschneider at 6:17 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


They spotted him on security tape buying the interlocking plastic toys at unsanctioned discounts and put out fliers alerting clerks to the scam


Now that's English!

Happy birthday junior, looks it's those interlocking plastic toys you've been asking for, and don't worry darling I made sure the discount I purchased them at was not unsanctioned.
posted by mattoxic at 6:21 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Why not L3j0z?
posted by jeffburdges at 6:22 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


It seems more likely that the guy has either a gambling problem or a Rielle Hunter problem - which is to say he doesn't need money, he needs cash that he can hide from his wife. John Edwards had plenty of money, but he couldn't pay Ms Hunter without the former Mrs Edwards becoming aware of it so he turned to crime. I'd bet this guy's backstory isn't all that different.
That's not the theory prosecutors have put forth :P (They claim he didn't want to spend his own money, because he didn't want a paper trail connecting him to hunter, because that would have been bad politically, which makes it a "campaign donation" even though the money went from the donor to hunter, without Edwards or his campaign ever getting his hands on it. Although apparently the campaign guy was able to embezzle big chunks of it before it got to her)
posted by delmoi at 6:22 AM on May 23, 2012


1. Please stop with the Lego-pluralization derails. It stopped being funny years ago and no variation on how valiant you are and how you will never give up the battle is going to start being funny.

2. Hard to feel anything but sorry for the guy given he must have some sort of problem. And if he doesn't, he's still a piker in the barcode scam game.
posted by yerfatma at 6:31 AM on May 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


"Legum" is the correct singular.
posted by griphus at 6:34 AM on May 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's spelled "legume", griphus. Let's not overthink it though.
posted by Cookiebastard at 6:43 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm a creature of the black legume. Love me some black beans.
posted by pracowity at 6:48 AM on May 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


asparaguses, asparagi - asparageese

Asperageaux.

You know what? From now on, it's Legoz. Just for you, baby.

May I suggest Legeaux?
posted by eriko at 6:53 AM on May 23, 2012


Kandinski, I'll give you spaghetti because it's actually a plural already (just one spaghetto, give it to me, delicious pasta, of Italeee...);

As an Italian-American Rap Superstar, I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask that you cease and desist, as "Spaghetto" is my trademarked stage name. (Italian Ice was taken)
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 7:05 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I fucking played with sand and playdoh and lego when I was a kid.

Not "sands", not "playdohs" and certainly not "legos".

It's a medium.
posted by panaceanot at 7:15 AM on May 23, 2012 [6 favorites]


On the subject on computer vision-- There's been work done on reducing theft using automatic product recognition.

One of the ways a supermarket loses a good amount of revenue is through 'BOB' (bottom of basket) loss. A customer places a case of beer, or similarly high priced product on the bottom of their trolley, and doesn't let the cashier know during the check out process.

The advantage to the dishonest customer is, even if they are stopped in a random check by security at the exit, they can always just feign forgetfulness and pay for the goods without any repercussions, so there is little disincentive to try.

The system I'm currently looking at is Lanehawk-- it's just a system that gets embedded near the floor of the check-stand. As a trolley is pushed up to check-out, it processes it's images against a database of product pictures to actually identify the products sitting there. It then alerts the cashier 'hey there's these items here, do you want to add them automatically to the sale?'.

That hardest part is getting an accurate feel on how much is lost via BOB. Even if you're the most optimistic person, and think you might only lose one case of beer a day, that's still a loss of $10k+ over a year.
posted by Static Vagabond at 7:19 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh, hey, I've seen those Lanehawk things in Target stores! Didn't know it had any real machine vision though, I just thought it identified presence/absense of an object.
posted by miyabo at 7:21 AM on May 23, 2012


If he's defrauding retailers for funsies in his free time, I hope someone at SAP audits his work.
posted by device55 at 7:40 AM on May 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Speaking of silliness in product design, check out this new shaver from Schick, The Microcontrolled Razor...
posted by jdhinckley at 7:42 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Or do what people at the Target I used to work with in the electronics section did. Purchase new GPS. Bring home GPS and put old crappy GPS in the box. Return box to unsuspecting cashiers. Profit! Everyday customers did this with TVs, too.

Until the cops came marching in one day and hauled off everyone in handcuffs. Including the cashiers who while they did make the false transaction, had no idea they were being hoodwinked into the scheme.
posted by jmd82 at 7:46 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


We might get to the point where we're "serial numberlizing" pretty much everything. Then the UPC and the serial number and the image has to match to process a sale.

Using 2D barcodes, like QR or Micro-QR, you can very easily store a 128-bit GUID even with lots of error-correct padding. That would allow you to put a globally unique identifier on every instance of every product that would track it from factory floor to point of consumption, and be readable using inexpensive equipment, and also wouldn't require a namespace-management organization like UPC does (since GUIDs are designed to not collide when used properly).

Once you move to identifying individual instances of a product rather than simply saying that a customer bought so many units of a particular SKU, a lot of neat inventory-management stuff (and some creepy tracking stuff) becomes possible. And the opportunities for fraud, particularly return scams, go down. Doubtless there are new opportunities that open up, too.

What I suspect we'll see in the near future is the elimination of paper receipts as anything except as a customer convenience for most situations. I.e. possession (or lack) of a receipt won't get you anywhere in terms of making a return. Instead, to return something the clerk will scan the item and see if it matches the sales records for your credit card, loyalty account, or even government ID. Some stores are getting pretty close to this already. The only wrinkle comes in when you are dealing with gifts, which is admittedly a major use case for some retailers -- here I think the solution would be to print a gift receipt containing (in machine-readable format) the list of GUIDs corresponding to returnable items, and then cryptographically sign it. The gift receipt would only allow you to return the exact items purchased and no others.

On the machine-vision angle, I'm pretty sure that some self-checkout systems already use some type of machine vision in addition to weight sensors to prevent UPC swapping. I'm not sure of the manufacturer of the system (NCR?) but it was at a Bloom Grocery store. I only noticed it because it threw an error when I was leaning over the scanning area; the camera was mounted overhead and was looking straight down on the scanner. Something like that would at least stop you from putting the UPC from a candy bar on a steak, but it wouldn't probably discriminate between ground beef and filet.

As raster-based (digital camera) imaging gets better and better, I suspect we'll eventually see the demise of the laser scanner at checkouts; easier to just have a bunch of cameras inspecting every side of the item, scanning 1D and 2D barcodes, maybe doing some basic packaging or dimensions validations, etc. If it's not the case already, pretty soon I expect it'll be cheaper to throw a bunch of camera sensors and software processing at the problem than to build the traditional laser-plus-spinning-mirror setup that most checkouts use.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:15 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Speaking of silliness in product design, check out this new shaver from Schick, The Microcontrolled Razor...

This is a new twist on the coming razor-blade singularity (a proposition much more realistic than any posed by Kurzweil or Vinge). Perhaps instead of exponentially-increasing blades packed into a single payload packed with retail theft-production devices, we'll see razor blades with super-human intelligence.

And that will ultimately be a good thing, because you look silly with muttonchops and a soul patch.

Retail and banking security strikes me as a cost/benefit decision to prevent one form of loss while eating another form of loss. Someone likely made the decision that the risk of forged barcodes was an acceptable compared to the benefits of reducing check-out lines, inventory control, and cashier errors.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 8:15 AM on May 23, 2012


Well, the obvious mistake he made was putting a Lego barcode on another Lego set.

What he should have done was put the Lego sticker on one of those fancy SAP software suites. Then he could have sneaked $4.4 million past the cashier.

Or he could have gone the other way and put a barcode for Eggo waffles on the Lego set. Then he would have gotten a $40 Lego set for $4, immediately quintupling margins. This has the added advantage of plausible deniability. When questioned by suspicious security types, he could bluster them with "Eggo, Lego, what's the difference?" and then take off in the confusion.
posted by storybored at 8:28 AM on May 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


On the "computer vision" front: I don't think this is as hard an issue as you think.

> picking out any and all kinds of packaging out from the background of any kind of store,

You aren't doing this at random - there's a spot you'd have to put the item to scan, so you could control the background completely. And you can rely on the customer using the checkout to move the item around until it "beeps".

Similarly, the "hiding one item behind another" issue can simply be solved by having more than one camera - and more general issues can be mitigated by having a single "security guard" human who walks around and spot checks a dozen or so registers.

They frankly don't care if someone occasionally steals a chocolate bar or something. Anything expensive will have an RFID tag as well (costs them $0.05, a bargain on a $250+ box of LEGO), so they can easily detect if an expensive item starts to leave the store without being paid for.

Consider what a Kinect does today, for less than $100 in parts - no, it's not the same but it's almost there. Suppose it costs you $30K to keep a human cashier - then using today's standard calculations, it's worth purchasing a $60K robot to replace them (even if you then have to hire one "security guard" for every dozen robots you buy). Three Kinect-equivalents and a computer is less than $1K in parts - there's a lot of potential for profit in there...

My prediction is that you'll start seeing vision systems in checkout before 5 years have elapsed and they'll be commonplace in 10 years - assuming there isn't a complete collapse before that.

In the longer term, most unskilled and semi-skilled jobs are on their way out. There'll be a generation or so while the prices come down, the software improves, and the companies make the capital investments, but in 20 years, even jobs like construction and fast food preparation will be done by machines.

Assuming, as I said, that there isn't a complete collapse before that.

I think things will get bad before that - because they will have destroyed tens of millions of jobs, and won't be compensating or retraining the displaced workers, in the US at least - "because they deserve it, why don't they get a copy of What Color Is Your Parachute? or start their own businesses?" - and at a certain point people will have nothing to lose...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 8:50 AM on May 23, 2012


Dude, you didn't go with, "Lego my Eggo?" Weak.
posted by adamdschneider at 8:51 AM on May 23, 2012


Oh, and this poor guy has a mental illness. As everyone else commented, if he'd wanted to steal, there are much more profitable ways for a smart guy to steal.

It could have been a life-long thing, but it's actually fairly common for minor strokes and other cerebral events to damage people's "moral centers" (which is a short-hand for a pretty complex emergent set of phenomena). I believe that that was the final explanation for the surgeon who "signed" his operation in stitched a few years ago...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 8:54 AM on May 23, 2012


storybored: A neat idea. But a minor degree of error-checking with barcodes is the abbreviated product description and department that shows up on the monitor and receipt. A downside to that system is usually the full product description ends up abbreviated, but it would be easier to pass something coded TOY-LEGO-SKYWLKR as something like TOY-LEGO-500BRK than as FRZN-EGGO-24CT-BUTTER.

lupus: I've read about video systems that can scan an entire cart at once. I don't think they've been put into production yet, and there will probably be ways to hack them to commit fraud.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 8:59 AM on May 23, 2012


A guy I went to (residential) high school with got suspended -- maybe expelled -- for doing this at the grocery store across the street from where we lived (along with some other crimes, if my memory serves correctly)

With him, it wasn't Lego, but I think tupperware used to cook ramen -- and he didn't make his own, he just swapped the barcodes on a cheaper piece to the one he walked out with.

He did a lot of schemes like this, just to prove he could. This was 20 years ago. I wonder what he'd be up to today at that age.

What I'm saying is - thank god kids have 4chan so they don't spend so much energy ripping off supermarkets.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 9:26 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


If he'd done been a kid doing this because he wanted LEGO sets for himself and had been actually building and playing with them, I'd be totally on his side.

In fact, I like to think there are several kids out there who don't have the money to buy LEGO but have access to a printer at school or something and spend lots of time enjoying their ill-gotten blocks.
posted by straight at 9:27 AM on May 23, 2012


Being a Japanese root-word, asparagus has no plural. However, you still have to use the counting particle -furi.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:36 AM on May 23, 2012


> lupus: I've read about video systems that can scan an entire cart at once. I don't think they've been put into production yet, and there will probably be ways to hack them to commit fraud.

Hah, things are more advanced than I thought...!

> there will probably be ways to hack them to commit fraud.

The stores don't care about a small amount of fraud. Larger items can be dealt with pretty well using RFIDs embedded in the package. You'll have "security guards" still.

And remembering that the punishments for small crimes keep escalating, it won't be hard to keep "slippage" down to a manageable amount.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:40 AM on May 23, 2012


Being a Japanese root-word, asparagus has no plural. However, you still have to use the counting particle -furi.
Asparagus-tachi. (Hey, Asparagus are people, too!)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:00 AM on May 23, 2012


I'm going to keep on "Legos"-ing for as long as the Brit weirdos keep "maths"-ing.

The British maths vs American math is counterbalanced by the British sport vs the American sports. Thus is the conservation of mutually baffling plurals maintained.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 10:01 AM on May 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


Kaiden2048: Once you move to identifying individual instances of a product rather than simply saying that a customer bought so many units of a particular SKU, a lot of neat inventory-management stuff (and some creepy tracking stuff) becomes possible. And the opportunities for fraud, particularly return scams, go down. Doubtless there are new opportunities that open up, too.
The trick is also to get the systems that exist to talk to each other. :) I bought a baby play yard with my Target card, and six months later got a crapload of coupons for baby gear. But the two systems that pulled that off didn't talk to the third in the equation - the gift registry I bought it off of, and assumed the baby was mine.

There are a lot of systems behind the scenes - and consider a store like Target also has to deal with online orders (easier as there are paper trails unless done with fraudulent cards but unless it's a fraudulent gift card or debit card people aren't getting cash back) for buy and return scams.
What I suspect we'll see in the near future is the elimination of paper receipts as anything except as a customer convenience for most situations. I.e. possession (or lack) of a receipt won't get you anywhere in terms of making a return. Instead, to return something the clerk will scan the item and see if it matches the sales records for your credit card, loyalty account, or even government ID. Some stores are getting pretty close to this already. The only wrinkle comes in when you are dealing with gifts, which is admittedly a major use case for some retailers -- here I think the solution would be to print a gift receipt containing (in machine-readable format) the list of GUIDs corresponding to returnable items, and then cryptographically sign it. The gift receipt would only allow you to return the exact items purchased and no others.
That's a nice tech solution, but again with the problems. In the real world, people lose that paperwork all the time, so it's easy to feign issues on a small scale. Which puts us back at individual unit tracking to prevent a good amount of fraud (which of course will move to other targets, no pun intended).

And a lot of people will simply go cash to avoid all that. To avoid fraud detection, or simply to be off grid. If it weren't for the constant 5% discount and 5% to my chosen school, I'd pay cash at Target.

Ultimately, one has to consider, is the overhead of adding a system (imagine the minimum of a year to spec it out, and a couple years to roadmap it in and roll it out) to that degree of uniquity worth it. Obviously, one will never eliminate a certain degree of shrinkage, but it's the bigger fish we have to figure out how to cost effectively net.
posted by tilde at 10:06 AM on May 23, 2012


Your balance is thrown off by the British drugs vs. American drug. That difference led to a surprising goof in Eyes Wide Shut wherein a copy of the New York Times indicated that someone was arrested on a "drugs" charge.
posted by griphus at 10:09 AM on May 23, 2012


The British maths vs American math is counterbalanced by the British sport vs the American sports.

Baseball is a sport. Basketball is a sport. Hockey is a sport. Together, they are sports, no?
posted by explosion at 10:11 AM on May 23, 2012


The story reminds me a bit of that of Daniel Feussner, a microsoft executive who bought a lot of software at employee rates and then sold it. The scope of the crimes are different (Feussner reportedly gained $9M) but in both cases I go "why? you're already set."

Neither of these guys were doing it because they needed food, but I wonder if the need they felt was as strong as that.
posted by zippy at 10:14 AM on May 23, 2012


To fit a kleptomania diagnosis he would need to experience growing and disturbing tensions leading up to a theft, and then feel the tension discharged once he stole something. Maybe it could be an antisocial disorder. Probably just something he likes to do. I know a guy who owns almost 100 buildings in New York, but spends a tremendous amount of time stocking and fussing over a vending machine he has in the back of a used clothing store. It was that kind of low-level business sense that allowed him to build a fortune, and he's just programmed to keep doing it.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:20 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


> Being a Japanese root-word, asparagus has no plural.

Asparagui.

I was going to say, Asparaguses, for the same reason as Octopuses. Being a "fully naturalized" English word, and having no plural in its root language that we chose to inherit however-long-ago, it would then be subject to English standard pluralization.

BUT!

The Internet says that old english imported "asparagui" as the plural, and that it has since fallen out of usage in favor of "asparagus" as the plural.

Old english? Game of Thrones? WHAT WAS OLD IS NEW AGAIN!

Asparagui.
posted by crysflame at 10:21 AM on May 23, 2012


Oh, and this poor guy has a mental illness. As everyone else commented, if he'd wanted to steal, there are much more profitable ways for a smart guy to steal.

You know what? This "oh the poor man must be crazy" thing going on in this thread is getting right on my tits. Some rich people are just dishonest, stupid little shits who overestimate their skill and underestimate their chances of getting caught. Having lots of money doesn't mean you don't want a bit more because you're a greedy prick.
posted by howfar at 10:22 AM on May 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


ACK, I didn't even consider tacking on a minimum of 3-5 years for vendor compliance as well ... unless you're MalWart you probably don't have muscle to work out a serial number requirement they must follow within a mere year.

But again, how to prove a decent ROI, and while that might have caught this guy early, doesn't keep him from going to MalWart or KSmart or other largish retailer that hasn't implemented something similar.
posted by tilde at 10:47 AM on May 23, 2012


Seems like good inventory management is the key to preventing patterns of abuse like this. Like in this case they would be selling more of the low-priced sets than they actually ordered. Sure it won't catch the one-off criminal, but it is pretty easy to catch the pattern after the fact and send out a team to bust them.
posted by smackfu at 10:52 AM on May 23, 2012


However, and I should probably be arguing this with Mrs Kandinski, not with you, if someone serves you a plate of asparagus, do you say "the asparagus is nice" or "the asparagus are nice"? Because I only say "is" when there is one asparagus.
Singular verbs in all cases, as though it is uncountable like rice. I wouldn't take my dialect as anywhere near standard, but Lego as an uncountable noun fits well with how I and the folk about me speak.

posted by Jehan at 10:57 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


This rice is nice. This aparagus is nice. These Legoz are nice.
posted by adamdschneider at 11:16 AM on May 23, 2012


If you have a piece of cheese, it is cheese. If you have multiple blocks of a cheese, it is still cheese. If you have multiple kinds of cheese, it is perfectly good English to say cheeses. LEGO is a brand name and is singular and plural and does not need an 's'. It also acts as a descriptor and adding an 's' to the lowercased non-brand word to make it plural is not wrong. At least that should be the assumption according to convention but I'm sure LEGO has a press release floating around making note of proper usage.
posted by Rocket Surgeon at 11:32 AM on May 23, 2012


While we are derailing this interesting story of senseless shoplifting with a discussion of plurality, can we have a side thread about the quaint UK habit of referring to named corporations as plural presumably because they represent more than one person, e.g. "Microsoft are still acting like dicks?"
posted by localroger at 11:48 AM on May 23, 2012


I find it hilarious that the same people who complain that modern Legos stifle imagination and creativity will go ballistic if you call them "Legos".
posted by Legomancer at 12:40 PM on May 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Nanafuri asuparagasu ga aru

"I have seven asparagus."
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 12:43 PM on May 23, 2012


localroger - our Sociolinguistics professor, who was a Californian, explained the count/mass noun distinction using chocolate. Seeing bands referred to in the singular always feels weird to me.

But let us not talk about whether The Beatles is great.
posted by mippy at 2:13 PM on May 23, 2012


"Microsoft are still acting like dicks?"

But how do you express that thought succinctly otherwise? "Microsoft is still acting like a dick" seems unsatisfactory. Companies may have legal personality, but I'm not sure they manifest personality traits.
posted by howfar at 2:21 PM on May 23, 2012


> Some rich people are just dishonest, stupid little shits who overestimate their skill and underestimate their chances of getting caught.

Hey, I'm usually the one pointing this out here - I've been told that I'm the most ideological person at least one Metafilter user has ever "met".

And sure, rich people just cheat and steal for the fun of it. Absolutely. But this was a lot of work for not very much money. And this wasn't some Wall Street guy but a technology executive. Yes, I've had my issues with people of exactly that description, many aren't all they're cracked up to be, but generally they're much more honest simply because you can't fake technology for very long.

And if he'd run some serious scam, not only would he have made far more money, but it's likely that even if he were caught, he'd not have been charged, because it's too embarrassing. As it is, he's ruined for life.

So my guess is that the guy lost his marbles. I am, however, open to changing my mind if there were more information.

I only wish they'd catch and jail the Wall Street criminals who were involved in scams of thousands of times the magnitude of this, but I don't expect that to ever happen at this point.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 2:22 PM on May 23, 2012


And if he'd run some serious scam

Maybe this was the cleverest and most serious scam he could think of. There are plenty of morons who have bluffed, weaselled, bullied and blustered their ways into executive positions. Maybe he thought it was a work of genius and no-one would ever catch on, and he saw it as wonderful free money conned out of people less gifted than himself.

It's also entirely possible that there is a completely different story here and Langenbach was ill or desperate. I just find the assumption that having managed to get fairly rich is a sure indicator of competence, self-awareness and intellectual capacity pretty comical and very depressing. Our overlords aren't simply, or perhaps even mainly, malign, they're quite often as thick as pig-shit too.
posted by howfar at 2:51 PM on May 23, 2012


This is a new twist on the coming razor-blade singularity (a proposition much more realistic than any posed by Kurzweil or Vinge). Perhaps instead of exponentially-increasing blades packed into a single payload packed with retail theft-production devices, we'll see razor blades with super-human intelligence.
Here's what I'd like: A device with a bunch of computer-controlled robotic microclippers (nano would be to small) that would physically grab each individual hair, then grab it and cut it specifically. Oh, and it would then sand down the remaining stubble giving it a nice soft texture, rather then the sharp abrasive result you normally get.

I've also thought the future might be genetically modified bacteria or something that live in your hair follicles and release chemicals that turn off hair growth gene expression. You'd just reapply some stuff every day that would tell it to turn on in the area of skin you don't want hair.

Advancements would allow you to do things like reduce the overall amount, or make the hairs thinner, so you could still have stubble, but reduce how annoying shaving is.

Oh and perhaps you could even do things like change the gene expression in the follicles on your head to change the texture or 'natural' color of hairs on your head.
You aren't doing this at random - there's a spot you'd have to put the item to scan, so you could control the background completely. And you can rely on the customer using the checkout to move the item around until it "beeps".
Yeah, I don't think that would be too difficult - although it would still be a huge pain when products change their labels, or add promotional logos, or whatever. However, why not just stick with the barcode? I was thinking something like scanning all the items in your cart.
But how do you express that thought succinctly otherwise? "Microsoft is still acting like a dick" seems unsatisfactory. Companies may have legal personality, but I'm not sure they manifest personality traits.
Yeah, exactly like that. The same way you'd stay "Zuckerberg is still acting like a dick". "Microsoft are acting like dicks" sounds almost as weird as "Zuckerberg are still acting like dicks". Not quite as strange, but corporations, bands, sports teams, etc are all singular (unless it's a team with a plural name like "The Bulls" as opposed to "The Heat")
posted by delmoi at 4:53 PM on May 23, 2012


Another UPC swapper, this one busted just a few months ago, also caught stealing Star Wars Lego sets at SFBay/Peninsula Targets for resale on eBay. He skipped showing up for his arraignment today during which he was to be charged for 14 felony counts of commercial burglary and one charge of grand theft.

"Morales was caught by a sharp store worker. The employee ringing him up realized the Millennium Falcon kits sold for a lot more than $15.99"

A lot of the Targets in the 'po parts of my South Bay city have long had anti-theft spiders wrapped around the larger Lego sets, including the Millennium Falcon, but the use of spider wraps on toys is much less common at many Peninsula Targets. Since spider wraps themselves are expensive, having one on a box tends to signal "expensive" to the cashier, which might be why both men chose to target Targets in generally higher income neighborhoods. As for why they didn't swap UPCs at Walmart: Walmart has a shitty Lego selection, most stores here carry only the small and medium (<$50) sets and if an individual location stocks any of the big sets, they only have 1 or 2 per SKU shipped to the location per quarter.
posted by jamaro at 5:32 PM on May 23, 2012


I think things will get bad before that - because they will have destroyed tens of millions of jobs, and won't be compensating or retraining the displaced workers, in the US at least - "because they deserve it, why don't they get a copy of What Color Is Your Parachute? or start their own businesses?" - and at a certain point people will have nothing to lose...

People made the same argument during the industrial revolution. There will always be other jobs because the people who have money naturally desire some service or another that someone else can provide. Maybe we'll have more psychologists or teachers or massage therapists.

One of the nice things about the "machine learning revolution" is that hopefully they will make the jobs that people actually do more interesting (by eliminating the other jobs).

Again, the question isn't "Can you do it?" but rather "can you do it correctly 9999 times out of 10,000?" And the answer is probably No and probably always will be.

People said the same thing about so many technologies, e.g., hard disk writing and reading. My feeling is that if people can do it and it doesn't rely on something based on the human experience, then computers will be able to do it one day.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 8:45 PM on May 23, 2012


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