July 2008

Shoplifting Claims Another Victim: You

Author: Craig Hysell

Shopping. MasterCard International says shopping is second only to dining as the primary way people reward themselves. On an Island famous for both its restaurants and its retail space, Hilton Head might as well be ground zero—a global proving ground for Mastercard’s theory. But it’s not all sunshine, calm waters and big smiles. Shopping has a dark side.

It’s no secret that people shoplift. But there’s also a not so obvious reason why you might have a vested interest in such a “victimless” crime. OnlineLawyerSource.com writes, “The average family in America spends $300 every year in order to subsidize the cost of what shoplifters steal.” Three-hundred bucks a year? That’s gas money for your vacation or a plane ticket to paradise… at least it used to be…

Chris McGoey writes on Crimedoctor.com that between $19,000 and $25,000 of merchandise is stolen every minute in the United States. That comes to about $35 million per day says the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention (NASP). The NASP concludes, startlingly, that $13 billion worth of goods are stolen from retailers each year. That trickles down to everybody’s pocket books. Not only in higher prices consumers must pay for goods to cover these monumental losses, but also higher taxes to cover the lost tax revenue at the state and local level.

The NASP says that one in eleven people are shoplifters in the United States. That’s 27 million people averaging 550,000 incidents per day. With numbers that large, profiling a shoplifter is practically impossible. Shoplifting crosses all age, gender, ethnic and socio-economic groups. Basically—and what makes matters worse—a shoplifter can be, and is, anybody.

Cheryl Klippel is the owner of three retail stores on Hilton Head Island. She “doesn’t wanna know” how much she loses to shoplifting annually. And, although she is adamant about keeping shoplifting out of The Pelican’s Pouch and her two Island Girl locations, she admits it’s tough. “I once caught a mother and her two daughters shoplifting in my store. I had the mother taken away in handcuffs… she was a Sea Pines resident.”

Most shoplifters are non-professionals. They aren’t “evil”, aren’t necessarily kleptomaniacs and usually aren’t doing it because they feel they “gots to gets theirs”. Peter Bergin writes in Why Do Shoplifters Steal? that “to most non-professional shoplifters, ‘getting something for nothing’ is like giving themselves a ‘gift’ or a ‘reward’ which in turn gives them a ‘lift’.” It’s this “rush” for lack of a better term that becomes highly habit forming and addictive. Twenty-seven percent of shoplifters caught for the first time have already developed a habit or addiction.

“It’s rarely about greed or poverty. It’s about individuals struggling with personal conflicts and needs,” says the NASP. Seventy-three percent of adults and seventy-two percent of juveniles don’t plan to steal in advance. And amateurs never try to sell the item for a profit. In fact, most shoplifters are the type of people that would return the money they saw you drop out of your wallet. Shoplifting, according to the NASP, “is the result of situational, emotional, or psychological problems.”

Berlin agrees. He found that “depression was the most frequently found psychological problem,” and writes of three reasons why most amateurs steal. Shoplifting subs for a loss (people feel unfairly deprived in some way), is used as justified payback (to the store, a person or a situation), or is used as a relief mechanism “for anxiety, frustration, boredom or depression.”

Is this a justification of shoplifting? Absolutely not. But if we understand the problem for what it is, maybe we can do a better job of preventing it. But that’s a big maybe. Security measures in retail stores run the gamut, from closed-circuit television cameras to phony shoppers, uniformed guards, exit inspections and locked merchandise. All of which cost money.

Electronic Article Surveillance (EAS) is the second most popular security device after closed-circuit tv. EAS systems are the magnetic tags that make the doors beep when people leave if the tags haven’t been de-magnetized properly. They are reported as reducing shoplifting by 60%. The problem is, there are so many false alarms, that people rarely take notice of the beeps and sirens anymore. But that’s not all.

The FDA also acknowledged at one point that internal medical devices, such as pacemakers and defibrillators, “might be slightly affected” by the EAS system. However, before you get too worried about going shopping ever again if you wear such a device, in a study of one million Americans, only 44 reported reactions over the past ten years. It’s pretty much a non-issue and worth clearing up so we can all remain free to exercise our irrefutable capitalist right to buy stuff.

Perhaps Klippel offers the most definitive argument against EAS. “With so much inventory, it’s a lot of work tagging and untagging our product. Garments can also be ruined if they’re tagged improperly. Not to mention the ways people can get around them…” Klippel went to closed-circuit cameras this year and now employs a full-time employee to keep an eye on things. She is also able to monitor those same cameras through the Internet when she’s away from her businesses and encourages Sea Pines and Coligny Plaza’s security guards to walk through her stores often. Have these additional costs trickled down to her retail prices this year? “Not yet,” she says.

In a crime prevention study at Rutgers University, several shoplifting techniques were outlined. Some of them were quite surprising. Shoplifters used baggy clothes, large bags, purses, newspapers, even strollers and umbrellas to hide merchandise. They would also work in pairs and create distractions. Some wore long coats with the pockets cut out—by keeping their hand in their coat “pocket” they could grab merchandise using the coat to conceal their theft. And then there was the “crotch technique”.

A woman wearing a long dress or skirt would put an item under her clothing, clinch it with her thighs and walk out of the store. Television sets and typewriters have been reportedly stolen in this way. (If you get a television out of store by carrying it with your thighs… maybe you deserve to keep it…)

Ten million shoplifters have been caught in the last five years. Fifty-five percent of adults began shoplifting in the their teens and, again according to the NASP, a shoplifter is caught, on average, once every 48 times they steal. Only fifty percent of shoplifters are turned over to the police. Cheryl Klippel prosecutes them every time.

In South Carolina the penalty for misdemeanor shoplifting (a theft of $1000 or less) is a maximum $500 fine and 30 days in jail. Felony shoplifters who are caught stealing goods worth $5000 or more can be punished by up to ten years in prison. Klippel, who’s had one court case pending for more than a year says, “If I don’t follow up it won’t be stopped. It takes time out of my day to go to court, but I want people to know it’s not okay. I shouldn’t take it so personally, but I do.”
So what’s the answer? How do we “fix” shoplifting? “I don’t think you can,” says Cheryl. “There’s always people in this world who try to get something for free.” And it’s costing you at least $300 a year.

Every crime has a victim.

Some facts about shoplifters…

There are an estimated 25 million shoplifters in our nation today (approximately 1 in 11 Americans)

Retailers lose $25 million a day to shoplifting.

Contrary to popular belief, men and women shoplift equally as often.

About 25% of shoplifters apprehended are juveniles, 75% adults.

Shoplifters say they are caught an average of only once every 49 times. They are turned over to the police 50% of the time.

A small percentage of shoplifters are “professionals” who steal solely for resale or profit as a business. These include drug addicts who steal to feed their habit, hardened professionals who steal as a lifestyle, and international shoplifting gangs who steal for profit as a business.

The vast majority of shoplifters are non-professionals who steal, not out of financial need or greed, but as a response to social and personal pressures in their life.
Approximately 70% of non-professional shoplifters don’t plan their thefts in advance. 30% do.

The excitement generated from “getting away with it” produces a chemical reaction resulting in what shoplifters describe as an incredible “high” feeling. Many shoplifters will tell you that this high is their “true reward”, rather than the merchandise itself.

Drug addicts who have become addicted to shoplifting describe shoplifting as equally addicting as drugs.

Most non-professional shoplifters don’t commit other types of crimes. They’ll never steal an ashtray from your house and will return to you a $20 bill you may have dropped. Their criminal activity is restricted to shoplifting and therefore, any rehabilitation program should be offense-specific for this crime.


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