From Seventeen - February 1992



Each week before they go out to steal, Lisa* and her best friend Deirdre meet at the Orange Julius in the mall. The two girls hunkered down like conspirators in the back booth seem like average, middle-class fifteen-year-old shoppers. What sets them apart from many of those around them is the subject of their hushed conversation: not school or sports or parental injustice, but security, systems, suspicious clerks, escape strategies, and this week's list of targets.

Today, like every time they do this, Lisa feels the butterflies in her stomach give way to increasing rushes of adrenaline-a kind of living fear she finds almost pleasurable, especially when compared to the boredom she says she usually feels. Deirdre announces she'll go for a pair of earrings in the mall's most expensive department store; Lisa decides to boost a wallet or a belt in an adjacent section. The two stand up and walk, as casually as they can, over to the store's entrance, where they quickly split up.

At first, Lisa sneaks several looks of support over at her friend, two aisles away, but soon her mind becomes focused entirely on her own theft. Her heart pounds as she approaches a display rack of wallets. One is made of snakeskin dyed bright pink-it's unlike any wallet she's ever seen, and she knows at that moment she has to have it.

Lisa lingers by the countertop rack. Her back feels tingly, almost hot, as if someone's eyes are bearing down on her. She glances around and sees no one. Then, fearing a salesperson might ask her if she wants help, Lisa makes her move--casually, almost accidentally, slipping the pink wallet up her sleeve. If caught, she tells herself, she can feign astonishment-Oh my God! I didn't even realize it! How did that get in there?

As she lifts the wallet, her heart feels like it's going to explode. Suddenly, she feels a fleeting regret-Why did I do this! Put it back!-but she knows she doesn't want to put it back, and she tells herself she's more likely to be caught slipping it out of her sleeve than slipping out of the store entirely.

For the next three minutes, Lisa pretends to do some more casual shopping, all the while watching for clerks who might be following her. Deirdre, she notices, has already left, and Lisa wonders briefly what her friend took. Then she heads for the entrance, takes a deep breath, and-though every muscle in her body urges her to run-walks calmly out the door. No one stops her.

"Whadya get? Whadya get?" asks Deirdre at a public telephone, their prearranged meeting spot. Lisa shows off the wallet, and Deirdre pulls out a pair of silver earrings. Their conversation, however, quickly turns from the stolen items to the act of stealing. Each boasts about her up-the-sleeve technique, and Deirdre speculates on possible store detectives. After ten minutes, Lisa finally feels her heart rate returning to normal, though she still doesn't feel completely home free. It's at this point that the girls' respective fathers arrive to take them home.

On the ride home, Lisa has little to say to her father, who happens to be a minister. She knows what she has just done is wrong, but it's almost as if somebody else temporarily stepped in and stole this incredible wallet. At her house, she runs to her room and locks the door, for the first time feeling completely safe. She opens a drawer and spreads out jewelry, lipstick, and other previously shoplifted items on her bed. Then, as a kind of centerpiece, she lays down the wallet.

Lisa's pride over this new acquisition is mixed with guilt, and she tells herself this is the last time she will steal. "But the urge for something new always comes back," she says. The following Saturday, Lisa and Deirdre meet again at the back booth.

An estimated ten billion dollars' worth of consumer goods are boosted, clipped, kyped, lifted, bagged, thieved, raided, ripped off, or otherwise stolen from retail stores each year. Precise statistics are hard to come by, but most law enforcement experts believe that teenagers account for nearly half of all shoplifting arrests. (Boys, incidentally, are as likely to shoplift as girls.)

And arrest records represent only the iceberg's tip. Lisa and Deirdre admit to stealing "at least a dozen times" without having been arrested, and they believe their technique is improving, making them less likely to be caught in the future. Such thinking has a strong flavor of rationalization and fantasy. For those who persist in stealing, getting caught is often just a matter of time.

"People have tried to come up with the reason why kids steal," says Jeff Gottlieb, PhD, a clinical psychologist who runs a program for shoplifters in Minnesota. "But the only way you can generalize is that shoplifting fulfills some need in a person. This can be financial, or the need for a thrill or for approval, or for a host of other reasons. "
A small percentage of teenagers shoplift out of a psychological compulsion-like kleptomania. Another small but growing percentage are motivated by a need for money to buy drugs. Most teenagers who steal, however, have more ordinary motives. In a survey conducted by the National Crime Prevention Council, the most common reason given by offenders was that they wanted something for free. "You'll find kids who want, say, a pair of Air Jordans but might not be able to afford them," says Hubert Williams, president of the Police Foundation, in Washington, D.C. Though, of course, plenty of rich kids shoplift, too.

Still, lots of kids want things they can't afford, and they don't shoplift-because they're afraid, because they worry about getting in trouble, because it's illegal, because it's just not right. They'll try to earn money or might ask their parents for it. Plenty learn to live without things they want. To steal simply isn't seen as a choice.

When shoplifting becomes a real option, there's some skewed rationalization involved. "At first you think a lot about what you're doing and the fact that it's wrong," says Lisa. "But after a while, it becomes less and less real somehow. It becomes such a game you don't worry anymore if it's right or wrong." Other kids justify the crime - saying the store charges too much or what they're taking is insignificant or it won't hurt anybody-and try to convince themselves that it's all right to steal.

Stealing with friends diffuses the responsibility, too. "It gives you courage," admits Lisa, "and it doesn't seem like it's so bad if somebody else is doing it with you."

Regardless of motive, "shrinkage" due to shoplifting and employee theft contributes to the majority of retail business failures. The red ink from shoplifting is also passed on to consumers. (An average family of four would save more than a thousand dollars a year if all shoplifting suddenly stopped.) Ironically, the customers hit hardest are honest teenagers. "Shoplifters make store owners suspicious of all teenagers," says Jean O'Neil, a research director at the National Crime Prevention Council. What's more, popular status goods-everything from hot sneakers to sunglasses to electronic games are the most likely things to be slapped with inflated price tags. So those who don't steal are paying a kind of double tax-in reputation and in dollars-to subsidize those who opt for the five-finger discount.

The nation's retailers have fought back, spending billions on guards and on high-tech security devices: electronic tags, hidden camera systems, even subliminal "be honest" messages. Store owners have learned the hard way that letting a shoplifter off with just a warning only earns the store a reputation for being an easy mark, and losses climb.

When a teenager is caught shoplifting, he or she is likely to be handed over automatically to the police, who will occasionally handcuff the shoplifter before taking him or her down to the station for fingerprinting and processing. A "high profile" arrest like this can be devastating, especially when friends see it happen. When Neil, sixteen, was apprehended wearing an overcoat with secret pockets filled with stolen goods, three police officers surrounded him. "One of them grabbed me and put on handcuffs so tight that my thumb went numb," recalls Neil. "They asked me all these questions right in the middle of the mall. I wanted to die."

Once they're caught, underage shoplifters are usually handled by juvenile court, which can impose sentences ranging from probation to community service to time at a juvenile correctional facility. Nearly forty states allow civil as well as criminal penalties (which means you can be made to pay damages as well as lose certain n freedoms). In Michigan, a shoplifter is likely to be ordered to pay back the owner of the store where the theft occurred-up to ten times the amount of
the stolen goods. Such restitution aims to make the shoplifter realize his or her act has hurt individuals, not an anonymous corporation.

By law, a juvenile's criminal record is sealed from public view, but one of the problems with shoplifting when you're fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen, says O'Neil, is that it can be hard to stop the moment you reach eighteen. And a conviction at that point permanently affects you, because shoplifting is a crime, and a criminal record doesn't go away.

The best way to avoid such consequences is, obviously, to not shoplift in the first place, and it's true that the majority of teenagers who steal stop after a few times. Shoplifting is likely to lose its thrill. The guilt of lying compounds the guilt of stealing, and many teenagers eventually feel the goods are no longer worth the pressure and the stress-or the regret. "The guilt is something you can't take back," says Lisa. "You can't make it go away."

For those who find themselves heavily involved in shoplifting, the prospects are more mixed. "Repeated shoplifting could indicate trouble at home or at school," says Dr. Gottlieb. "It could be depression. In some way the person's needs are not being met." For Lisa and Deirdre and many girls like them, it's possible to stop before .they find themselves embroiled in the legal system. But quitting cold turkey and without help, as Lisa has already discovered, can be difficult. "It's hard for us to make a dent in someone who truly doesn't feel any guilt; but we can reach the ones who still feel a little bad about what they're doing," says Dr. Gottlieb. "Shaming people, of course, doesn't make them stop shoplifting. But they need to realize they made a mistake."

"Some people shoplift a lot and don't get caught. Or they do it once and get caught," says Sergeant Gene Adamczyk of the Michigan State Police. "Either way, it lessens your moral values. It costs us all in the long run."

* All teenagers’ names have been changed