Inexpensive Sweethearting Solution (ScanCam)

Author: Brian Rhodes, Published on Jun 25, 2012

Sweethearting is one of the most difficult types of theft to detect on video. Sometimes due to cashier error, other times due to deliberate pilferage, sweethearting on the checkout line can be a significant source of loss. In this note, we profile a straightforward and inexpensive device that indicates when sweethearting takes place.

Overview

ScanCam is a simple electronic device that performs one function: flash a light when an item is registered by a barcode scan. In the case of 'sweatheart' scams, items are often passed over the scanner with the barcode obstructed, otherwise appearing to be a valid transaction but in reality amounting to product loss. The stereotypical 'beep' of the register is not useful when investigating these events, because the ambient noise level makes the location difficult to pinpoint. ScanCam acts as a visual indicator of scanner activity that is subsequently recorded by existing checkout stand surveillance cameras. Normally, this type of theft is challenging to detect without significant integration between the POS system and the Video Surveillance system, however ScanCam is a device that stands in the gap. See the rendering below for an image of the ScanCam as current production units appear:

When an barcode is read by a checkout scanner, an output port sends a signal to the ScanCam, which pulses an LED. This LED signal is 'seen' by a surveillance camera as indication that the item passing over the scanner was successfully read. The ScanCam unit is discretely mounted and 'aimed' so that adjacent CCTV cameras can observe the flash, but neither the cashier nor the customer is aware. In this way, 'good' scans get a flash, but 'not read' scans get no flash. The developer's promotional video below illustrates the product in action and illustrates how the product is installed and integrated into flatbed scanners:

ScanCam Specifications:

  • Requires existing CCTV to be installed and in use: ScanCam adds no video capabilities at all.
  • Size: ScanCam roughly measures 1" X 1" X 2"
  • Power: 12 VDC, phantom powered by scanner output port
  • Range: Impulse of high-intensity LED can be easily detected by color or B/W cameras hung nearest to checkout stand
  • Adhesive Mount: Lightweight, small size mean that ScanCam is adhesive fixed to mounting location
  • Price: A single unit sells for $199 USD, but must be purchased in minimum quantities of 10 units.

A strong advantage of the ScanCam is that beyond plugging the unit into a scanner's output port, no further video integration is needed. Other 'anti-sweethearting' solutions require API, manual integrations, or custom code to be written, but ScanCam does not use those methods. Once the unit is hung and positioned, it operates according to design.

Analysis

Installation: Because the ScanCam unit itself draws power from output ports on the flatbed scanner unit, no additional power supply is needed. The LED features a rotating ball mount, so that it can be precisely pointed at the nearest camera and not be observable by nearby bystanders. The type of interface cable required is the only differentiating piece among different ScanCam units. While not every scanner model has been tested, most major scanner manufacturers are currently supported. For a minimum purchase quantity, the developer will design custom cable assemblies.

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Discrete Deployment: The small footprint of the unit means it can be mounted in unobtrusive areas not observable by either the cashier or customers. Common mounting locations are under the register keypad displays or pole camera mounts. The low-profile of the sensor is key to it's success so that it operates without observation.

Low Implementation Cost: No retraining of cashiers or video system operators is required for successful use. Cashiers do not need to be retrained on how to scan items differently than they currently are trained. Additionally, use of ScanCam is intuitive for video operators when reviewing footage. When the light is blinking, barcode reads are occurring. Reviewing video for sweatheart events is as simple as looking for the coinciding light when an item is scanned. No additional operator training is required.

However, the biggest drawback of the ScanCam is the requirement of active video monitoring by human operators to be effective. When comparing this offering to an analytic based solution like StopLift (see our full StopLift review for further details), advanced features like alarm notification or event logging is not possible, and forensic tracking of sweethearting events is a manual operation, entirely dependent on recorder capacity.

Realtime alerts are not possible, unless the specific scene is being manually observed for errors, and ScanCam is substantially a forensic/training tool as a result. 

Also, the device cost relative to product features appear to be relatively high. At a fundamental level, ScanCam is a serial connected LED light. Development and tooling costs aside, no new or unique technology is encorporated into the product, and it is built using common components. Endusers should not presume advanced features based on the price.

Conclusion

While more sophisticated detection methods exist, ScanCam is an inexpensive entry into a complex detection problem. The low acquisition and installation cost of ScanCam enhances the value of existing video surveillance. ScanCam is worthy of consideration for those not requiring a deep level of 'sweetheart' detection.

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