News & Features Feedback
New This WeekAround TownMusicFilmArtTheaterNews & FeaturesFood & DrinkAstrology

  E-Mail This Article to a Friend
On the take
Whether they steal out of need, greed, or just for the thrill of it, millions of American shoplifters cost the retail industry billions in lost merchandise every year. Who will stop them?

Walking briskly out of Filene’s at the CambridgeSide Galleria — my stomach in my throat, my shoulder bag clenched under my sweaty armpit — I spot the guy who’s about to grab me. He is shaven-headed, in his early 30s, with a tufty little mustache and a sickly-green Lacoste-knockoff T-shirt. I recognize him from earlier; he’d been standing nearby when, back in Men’s Clothing, I’d slipped the merchandise into my bag. It was the way he was not watching me — diligently, compulsively — that first clued me in. And here he is again, not watching me as I exit the store.

As the guy — the store detective — loiters and dawdles a few feet ahead, I am suddenly aware of someone to my rear. I turn around and see two clean-cut men. One of them has CAMBRIDGE POLICE embroidered on the pocket of his shirt. It’s the classic pincer movement: the attack from the front coupled with a two-flanked assault from behind. I brace myself. The cops close in, then pass by without so much as a second glance. The green-shirt guy is gone. I’ve gotten away with it.


The thing is, my stolen goods — a pair of socks — weren’t really stolen at all. I’d paid for them and then tried to make it look as if I were stealing them. Why? Well, I wanted to see what it was like to get caught shoplifting: the heart-seizing interception, the walk of shame back through the store, the grim interrogation. It happens every day. In fact, it happens every minute or so. Nationwide, an estimated two million people are caught shoplifting annually. And, according to many in the business of retail security, the situation’s going to get worse.

It’s an immutable economic law: in hard times, more people turn to shoplifting to make ends meet — or to acquire those little luxury items such as CDs, cigarettes, silk underwear — that seem a little too luxurious when money is tight. And, in case you hadn’t noticed, money is tight. The get-rich-quick ethos of the ’90s has given way to just-get-by. People used to buy stock in Gillette; now they steal Mach III razors.

Shoplifting is not just for scabby crackheads, baggy-jean-wearing teens, or quick-fingered boosters. A friend of mine — an otherwise honest, decent person — admits to having lifted a pair of sunglasses recently, for the simple reason that she didn’t feel she could justify spending the 30 bucks or so to buy them. Even the likes of actress Winona Ryder — who probably has a dollar or two squirreled away — are getting into the act. What must it have been like for her to get caught?

True, my Gold Toe socks ($3.99) weren’t exactly in the same league as the $5000 in designer duds that Winona allegedly pilfered last December, and my arrest probably wouldn’t have roused the paparazzi in quite the same way, but at least I’d have gotten an idea of the protocol that follows the unhappy intersection of store detective and thief. To this end, I’d been deliberately bad at shoplifting, putting to use the lessons I learned from a couple of pros: an expert in retail security and a habitual shoplifter.

According to the shoplifter — a 23-year-old Boston resident we’ll call Jamie — successful shoplifting requires soldierly discipline, or, as he puts it, tapping into "some Jedi shit." "You learn certain techniques and strategies," he says. "You walk in and assess the situation, what the opportunities are. If you hesitate, you look suspicious. You’ve got to play it cool. Be on your toes at all times, be aware of everything that’s going on around you, but be natural. If you know what you’re doing, it doesn’t look like you’re doing anything."

"Shoppers all look the same," says Chris McGoey, president of McGoey Security Consulting and a former store detective. "They come in on a mission. They’re making selections. Shoplifters are not interested in the merchandise. They’re looking around for cameras and staff. Before you steal, it’s compulsive to take one last look around. You make a stuffing motion. You look around again and make a beeline for the door. And we’re there waiting for you."

So this is what I did: I prowled, I peered, I skulked through the aisles and stuffed the socks into my bag with a theatrical flourish. Then I made my retreat, weak-kneed with real fear. ("A friend of mine was walking out of a store, and he got tackled like a football player by the manager," says Jamie. "That shit sucks.") But I needn’t have worried: I’d been performing this pantomime for the better part of an afternoon, to no avail. I tried Sears. Nothing. Best Buy. Nothing. Ann Taylor. Nothing. These store detectives — or "loss-prevention officers," as they like to be called — were either incredibly efficient or incredibly useless. Either way, as the saying goes, I couldn’t get arrested.

According to the Cambridge Police Department, the arrest rate for shoplifting at the Galleria — the destination of choice for light-fingered locals — typically runs at 60 to 70 percent, meaning that for every 10 shoplifting incidents, there are six or seven arrests. But these figures are only marginally reliable. Statistically, shoplifting is a funny business. Unlike, say, car thefts or muggings, shoplifting incidents generally make it into police records only when the perpetrator is unsuccessful. If I’d actually stolen those socks, and if I’d gotten away with it, the incident would never have seen the light of day. It would have been a nonevent.

A study posted on the Web site for Shoplifters Alternative — a support group for chronic or compulsive shoplifters — reports that "[s]hoplifters claim they are caught an average of only once in every 49 times they steal. They are turned over to the police 50 percent of the time." If this is true, then police figures represent a mere one percent of all shoplifting incidents. "It’s a very elusive problem, very hard to identify," says Charles Sennewald, author of Shoplifters vs. Retailers: The Rights of Both (New Century Press, 2000). "All the numbers are skewed."

On his Web site (, Sennewald writes that, nationwide, 5400 people are caught shoplifting every day. "But even that number is suspect," he says. "That’s got to be an understatement in every sense of the word. We don’t know how many people are caught." What Sennewald means is that sometimes shoplifters are caught and then let go — because they are sad old ladies, adorable kids, upstanding members of the community, or simply because the store can’t be bothered to deal with the hassle of prosecuting. Only a small percentage of shoplifters make it into court. Fewer still end up in jail. "Rarely are [shoplifters] incarcerated, rarely," says Sennewald. "What typically happens is community service, a small fine."

This judicial slap-on-the-wrist approach to the shoplifting problem rankles those in the business of retail security. "The penalties are not harsh enough," says McGoey. "The prisons are overcrowded, the court calendars are clogged, so [judges] are routinely dismissing cases, or giving very light sentences, or probation. The bottom line is, society views shoplifting as a petty crime."

Many shoplifters, meanwhile, see their exploits as a justifiable redistribution of wealth, and themselves as Robin Hood–like figures, particularly during hard times. "Whenever you have a significant economic downturn, people are affected psychologically," says McGoey. "Because you have the Haves and the Have-nots, and people see these big stores as the Haves, so it's easier to justify theft."

Jamie, for one, says he abides by his own Shoplifter’s Code. "I never steal from mom-and-pop stores," he says. "I only steal from stores where it doesn’t damage the people working there. I don’t mind ripping off the big stores." And, although he routinely shoplifts a few times a week, Jamie takes comfort in the fact that he rarely steals anything worth more than a few dollars (his most expensive item to date was a $90 comforter). "Most of the time I steal to eat," he says. "I’ve lifted toilet paper, condoms, whatever, little things, trash bags — you know, if your apartment’s getting dirty. A couple of days ago I stole a toothbrush and some dental floss. And a bottle of juice, I think. I never take anything other than what I need — except maybe the comic books. I guess you don’t need comic books. Or maybe you do; they make you laugh."

page 1  page 2 

Issue Date: July 18 - 25, 2002
Back to the News & Features table of contents.
  E-Mail This Article to a Friend