EAS Alarm Activations

Tony Security Leave a Comment

I was prompted to write this article because of the number of questions I get asked on the subject of responding to activation.  I’m often surprised at the the variety of approaches taken and the number of mistakes made. Unfortunately this usually results in my surprise being less when I see the number of civil claims coming through every year for security responses to EAS activation. What should be a simple and every day task for a retailer and their staff regularly turns into a large payday for a customer. Like any risk it is hard to implement a control measure without first properly understanding the risk and that is the purpose of this article. To understand the benefits and risk of EAS systems and to speak about what I believe are appropriate responses to activation.

Benefits of EAS systems

EAS systems are not new. They have been around for decades and their benefits have been discussed by security professionals for just as long. Some argue for them and some against them (on a cost/benefit basis) but the reality is that they are here to stay. My own personal feelings on them is that in some cases they are a necessary tool and in others they are a underused and wasted piece of equipment. I have always been slightly skeptical on the scale of their benefit in reducing overall losses especially in the internet era where Youtube can show you 100 ways to defeat them . I’m also slightly skeptical of some of the research on their effectiveness as much of it is biased in that it carried out by tagging manufacturers with an interest in selling a product. Nevertheless, it can be a really good asset when used as part of a total security solution and managed properly. 

Some of the benefits often discussed for EAS systems include:

Deterrence of theft

Increased effort to steal

Identification of potential theft

Recognition of training issues or patterns of theft. 

Which of these benefits is most prominent will vary from store to store depending in their security team and their policies and procedures. Personally, I think that deterrence value is limited in modern times and their use as an identifier of potential theft is also diminished in modern times with such volumes of false activation that we currently see. For me the main value is the increased effort it makes people go to in order to commit theft (which often gives security an opportunity to become aware of them) and the recognition of staff who are not properly following tagging or till procedure. 

Types of EAS systems 

It’s important for security operatives to have a working knowledge of the EAS system in their store and the other types of system available. I’m not getting into too many technical details in this article such as Mhz ranges and amorphous metals but it is worth security operatives doing their own research on the subject. There  are a number  main types  of EAS system currently in use:

AM – Acoustic Magnetic tagging works in quite a simple way. Two magnetically charged strips form the tag and their vibrations are detected by a field which is interfered with by the magnetic vibration causing an alert. They are used mainly where the exit area is wide and needs a large tagging field

RF- Radio frequency tagging is a small circuit which emits a radio frequency via tiny antennae which is then detected by the pedestal receivers. Radio frequency systems tend to be cheaper than other systems

EM- Electromagnetic tagging works by magnetically charging an amorphous metal to emit and EM pulse. They can be expensive and can suffer from a lot of interference from external EM sources.

Microwave- Not as common and more expense than the other options.  A Microwave diode with an antennae is passed between the pedestals and the diode combines (modulates) a microwave and radio frequency from both pedestals to cause an alarm.

RFID- Newer and less common. It’s similar to RF but each stock item is tagged with a unique RF identifier. With the supporting software the store not only knows that an item has been removed but also exactly what type of stock has caused the activation .

False activation

In my estimation I would say that possibly up to 90% of pedestal activation are false. In general there are two different types of false activation to be aware of. These are false positives and false negatives. 

False Positives False positives occur when the pedestal positively activates but there is no tag passing through the field and no crime. This can be from a variety of reasons such as faulty pedestals, incorrect de-tagging, interference in the pedestal field and incorrect sensitivity levels on the pedestals all can lead to activation. There is also the issue of tag pollution which occurs when security tags from other retailers cause activation 

False negatives False negatives occur when a tag successfully passes through the field bit no activation occurs. These can be as a result of faulty equipment, faulty tags, signal jamming or other criminal means (such as foiled lined bags) or signal jammers.

Responding to alarms

Having an EAS system installed and then not responding to activation is a waste of everyone’s time and money. If the tagging system is working correctly and good processes are in place then activation should be limited anyway. Practically speaking though tag activation generally doesn’t mean criminality. On that basis it’s my view that security operatives shouldn’t be involved in responding to alarm activation. From a legal viewpoint there is no reasonable grounds to suspect criminality and from a service viewpoint the retailer should want their customer service staff to respond to customer service issues. Retail staff or managers should be responding and acknowledging the activation. They should inform the customer of the activation and offer the check the customers goods for a tag which may have been left attached. If a tag is identified they  should apologise for the mistake and ask the customer if they could check a receipt in order to identify the staff member responsible. This allows the staff member to verify the purchase and identify the staff member making the mistake. Security can keep a watching brief and support if necessary. 

Security involvement

There will always be clients who insist on security responding to activation. Firstly, this might be for staffing reasons or it maybe that there is a history of criminality and they don’t want to expose sales employees to this risk. This is a risk trade off and the security providers management have to be aware of the transfer of risk they accept when they agree to a policy like this. If they accept this risk then they need to be prepared to educate their staff on defamation and most importantly on the defence of ‘qualified privilege’ . For me though security responding to activation should be a final resort. I’m not going to go too much into the technicalities of qualified privilege or any other affirmative defence apart from to say it’s a risky strategy. Of course if security staff are trained and follow that training every time then it won’t be an issue but in a world where security staff are hired at a base rate and given not a lot of training or supervision then defamation is never too far away. 

Qualified privilege doesn’t change the approach security should take. Security should approach an activation in the same way as the retail staff would. Qualified privilege as a defence  basically means that the statement made by the security person was something which the customer had an interest in hearing and was made in good faith. So the security operative informing the customer that there was an activation and that there may have been a tag left attached is something the customer has an interest in hearing. Of course this should be combined with a service  based approach such as never stepping in front of the customer and never pressuring the customer. 

Good Practice

The goal is obviously risk reduction and the more we can reduce false activation (positive and negative) the less chance there is of an issue occurring. Some things that I think are good practice include:

Test gates daily – each pedestal should be tested individually at the start of a shift and any issues recorded  and notified to management. 

Test equipment daily- the de-activator pads should also be tested daily to make sure they are working correctly and any issues logged and units taken out of use. 

Test no tag area- every pedestal set has a sterile ‘no tag’ zone (usually about 2 metres) in which there should be no tagged items. We also need to be aware of other items in this area such as screen or monitors which could lead to activation. 

Records- a log should be kept of all activation by security. The activation should be recorded regardless of who responds and should include date,time, person who responded, outcome and name of the person responsible  for the error if there is one. This allows us to build up patterns of errors or of suspicious activity. It also shows a pattern of good practice should a mistake eventually occur. 


EAS systems have a use as part of a good security strategy. They aren’t the biggest or best part of the strategy but they can be a tool. They also carry risk though and its obvious from court cases over the past year that they are a real and ongoing risk. Burying the head in the sand and ignoring the risk is a recipe for disaster. Stores and security providers need to address the issue and decode how they are going to deal with these issues before a court case forces them to

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