Product security risk assessments for tangible goods

Author: Paul Curwell

State of art – managing fraud and security risk in relation to products

It makes sense that out of the universe of products on the market globally some products are more attractive to thieves and criminals, including trusted insiders, than others. Whilst working through my holiday reading I came across some research undertaken in 1999 by Ronald Clarke, a leading criminologist.

Photo by Gabriel Freytez on

I’ve been interested in what makes a product vulnerable to security and fraud risks for at least ten years. Take a moment to think about what we do with products: whether a passport or airplane part, we manufacture them before ultimately selling them to consumers, most of whom are free to use them and resell them at will on the secondary market. This means they need some protection against fraud and security threats, especially if your reputation or commercial revenue model is linked to the product’s ongoing integrity.

Whilst working in banking my team would undertake product fraud and security threat and risk assessments, at that stage primarily on the bank’s new fleet of Automatic Teller Machines (ATMs). ATMs are targeted in a number of ways, both physically and virtually, through attack vectors such as ram raids, Plofkraak attacks, and cyber hacking to ultimately access the cash contained inside. More recently, I provided expert review of threat and risk assessments for a suite of financial services and identification products (including digital identities) for another client.

To my knowledge, there is no formal threat and risk assessment methodology for products per se, but Clarke’s methodology seems a good starting point.

What satisifies a criminals cravings?

In his research, Clarke found that products commonly targeted by shop lifters in a retail exhibited six attributes which spell the acronym CRAVED, as follows:

  • Concealable – this is relative to the situation. Shoplifters might target small items they can easily conceal in clothing (eg watches) over a large TV, but sometimes it’s easier to walk out with something large. I previously did some work with a client involved in international air freight, and one of their risks was that trusted insiders could smuggle large items concealed in something else out of the airport through a legitimate freight shipment.
  • Removable – to target a product, you need to be able to pick it up and move it. Unlike services, products are generally transportable.
  • Available – there are two elements to this – products that are widely available, and those that are readily accessible (i.e. not kept in a locked cabinet with inventory or stock in store). Audit logs and access control measures, amongst others, should protect more valuable items.
  • Valuable – whether trusted insiders or organised fraud rings, criminals generally don’t steal things which are not of value to them. Value is also contextual – whilst a high demand product such as consumer electronics is seen as valuable to a large potential market, some products might be valuable to an individual for a specific purpose. We can reasonably expect the former might be targeted multiple times by one or more actors, whilst the latter category might be targeted only once.
  • Enjoyable – Clarke’s work looked at products most commonly associated with shoplifting, so there is an element of consumer desire (i.e wants & needs) here. But if our COVID crisis has taught us anything about supply chains, its that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs also plays a role (the repeated hoarding of toilet paper by consumers comes to mind).
  • Disposable – attractive products are those easily sold, or resold, either for cash or another form of value transfer. There is more demand, hence more of a market, for some products than others. Think of how easy it is to dispose of a second hand (or stolen) fridge over a passport.

Readers will note that CRAVED really applies to security related threats, such as theft, much more than fraud. I’m not aware of any formal product fraud risk assessment methodology.

How can we apply the CRAVED construct to manage product risk?

Clarke’s research was performed in 1999, so it is somewhat dated but the principles likely remain valid. Also, the research focused on retail and is not representative of other industries. Nevertheless, we can use the principles outlined by Clarke to inform the design of any product specific risk assessment methodology: CRAVED provides a starting point.

Based on my experience assessing product risk for fraud and security threats, I offer three tips to consider when designing and / or executing a product risk assessment to address fraud and security threats:

Tip 1: Analyse your historical incidents

Collecting detailed incident data is a foundational element of any fraud, security or risk function. Ideally, you want to capture as much detail as you can at the time of the incident, even if it may not seem relevant now. It may be much harder, or even impossible, to capture some data in the future.

TIP: If you are not doing this already, you should start. Ideally, try to collect as much historical data for say the past 12-24 months as you can, even if it is not complete, and put in place processes and tools to collect rich incident data going forward.

As you start to analyse your historical incident data, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Which product(s) are most commonly targeted? Assuming the Pareto Principle (’80:20 rule’) applies, a small number of your product models will be targeted more commonly than others. You need to identify these and assign a higher likelihood score during your risk assessment.
  • Are there any geographical aspects to these incidents? E.g. do they commonly occur in specific locations? This might indicate that some products are more likely to be stolen or attacked in a specific geographical area. The logical follow up question here is why…
  • Are there specific dates or times when most incidents occurred? In some forms of fraud, it is common to see spikes in fraud incidents in summer and a significant decline in winter. Additionally, some forms of crime are more likely to happen at night. Perhaps you might identify an unusual pattern, such as high rates of theft on a weekend when your business is closed, suggesting a potential insider threat.
  • How do these incidents occur? You need to get a good understanding of the criminal’s business process, particularly if there is a specific pattern or series of steps that are commonly undertaken which you might be able to disrupt using internal controls (mitigations). You can use a variety of analytical methods here including business process mapping, red teaming and analysis of competing hypothesis to achieve this.
  • Who is the perpetrator? Even if you can’t identify the perpetrator by name (which is unlikely), try to categorise perpetrators into groups such as opportunistic individuals, organised criminals, organised crime (eg mafia), trusted insiders etc. Over time, as you develop richer data sources and a deeper understanding of your data, you might be able to distinguish groups or sub-categories based on the groups specific behaviours (i.e. their Modus Operandi [MO] or Tactics, Techniques and Procedures [TTPs], such as a specific organised fraud ring.
  • Why do you think specific products are being targeted? You may need to do some critical thinking here, or alternately comparative case analysis methods would be helpful. You need to understand whether the products that are mainly being targeted (e.g. the 20% – assuming the 80:20 rule applies to your data) are being targeted for a reason. Ask yourself, do they share common attributes (such as the CRAVED attributes identified by Clarke)?

Tip 2: Identify any design attributes which could be modified to reduce the product’s attractiveness to criminals

Sometimes there are design attributes to a product, or even a service (e.g. a business process) that makes one manufacturer’s product more likely to be targeted than a competitor. Additionally, sometimes the design of a product makes it more likely to be targeted – an example could be not having branding or a serial number readily visible, which might allow criminals to ‘rebadge’ it as it is being sold. Repackaging is another area of risk here. Understanding these factors means you can work with product managers and design engineers to modify your product and make it less attractive to criminals, which means it is less likely to be targeted.

Ultimately, your goals here are revenue and brand protection. If you can design your product to be a ‘harder target’ (i.e. less attractive), you might save on downstream fraud and security costs. Alternately, some products are readily counterfeited, with sometimes lethal consequences for unsuspecting consumers. Aside from potentially tragic impacts to consumer’s lives, your organisation’s brand and reputation might be adversely impacted simply because your product design was easy to counterfeit and commercially attractive to counterfeiters.

In this case, the cost of the reputatation or brand damage (such as by consumer boycotts, lost sales) may far exceed the costs of product redesign or implementing additional security measures. Product managers need to know if anything specific makes their product overly attractive to criminals, and if so, do something about it in the design phase.

Tip 3: Understand where the product is most likely to be attacked or compromised

For example, if a product is more at risk during shipment, can better cargo security measures be implemented? If a product is at risk of counterfeiting, product authentication measures such as security packaging and traceability programs could be the solution.

It is very uncommon to encounter situations where managers have unlimited resources – a well-designed product risk assessment methodology can be used to identify those products requiring increased protection based on likelihood and consequence, and those requiring less protection. These insights can be used to efficiently allocate your limited risk management resources, as well as helping product managers understand why their product is at risk.

Further reading:

  • Clark, Ronald V., and John E. Eck. 2016. Crime Analysis for Problem Solvers in 60 Small Steps. Washington, DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.
  • Clarke, Ronald. 1999. Hot Products: Understanding, anticipating and reducing demand for stolen goods. No. 112 in Police Research Series. London: Home Office.

DISCLAIMER: All information presented on ForewarnedBlog is intended for general information purposes only. The content of ForewarnedBlog should not be considered legal or any other form of advice or opinion on any specific facts or circumstances. Readers should consult their own advisers experts or lawyers on any specific questions they may have. Any reliance placed upon ForewarnedBlog is strictly at the reader’s own risk. The views expressed by the authors are entirely their own and do not represent the views of, nor are they endorsed by, their respective employers. Refer here for full disclaimer.