THE LURE OF SHOPLIFTING
They’ve got jobs, families, even money in the bank … and they’re swiping a $10 lipstick. Why some women risk everything
for just a little more. PLUS: A celebrity shoplifters hall of shame.
By Joanne Kaufman
FOR YEARS JENNIFER LANE HAD A RECURRING NIGHTMARE: She was in the local grocery store, stuffing merchandise into her purse, when suddenly a policeman tapped her on the shoulder. She pivoted to face him, screamed, “It’s finally over!” and was carried off to jail. “Then I’d wake up and not he certain if it really happened,” says Lane, 40, a nursery school teacher who lives in Montana with her husband and two daughters.
It happened. Lane, in fact, had been shoplifting for just about as long as she’d been shopping. As an adolescent, she swiped clothes. “I was a middle child, and maybe I needed more attention than I was getting,” she says now. “I was finally caught, but my parents just figured I would get over it.” After a hiatus that lasted until she got married, Lane starred up again-three, four, even five rimes a week. “It was a rush and a high. Afterward, I’d feel bad about myself,” she says.
But not bad enough to stop. Though Lane could afford to pay for the goods, she’d pilfer tights and dresses for her daughters, Kool-Aid, lightbulbs, meat-anything that would fit into her purse. Her days and nights revolved around shoplifting: planning it, doing it, then dealing with the guilt and the bad dreams.
Lane is one of the thousands of “nice” American women who get hooked on doing something undeniably bad-shoplifting. It’s a problem that has grown worse in recent years; From 1984 to 1999, the incidence of shoplifting increased by more than 13 percent, according to the FBI Crime Index released in 2000.
What’s so tempting? Here’s one theory: Just as some women have a tough time resisting food when surrounded by instantly accessible snacks, others struggle to restrain themselves in a consumer-driven world that equates happiness with shopping.
But overeating, as damaging as it is to your health and self-confidence, is legal. Shoplifting isn’t. And it wrecks lives. After Lane was arrested, she had to come clean with her husband and daughters, face humiliation at her church, and apologize to colleagues at her nursery school while trying to hang on to her job. What was the crime that finally led to her arrest and nearly made her world crumble? Lane took two pins from a department store’s jewelry counter. Each was priced at $11.
Who they are, why they pilfer
There’s no profile of a shoplifter. Culprits are young and old, male and female, rich and poor, civilian and celebrity. Thirty-year-old actress Winona Ryder was charged with shoplifting last year after a surveillance camera allegedly showed her raking $4,760 worth of clothing and other merchandise from Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills, California (see “Light-fingered Celebs; A History,” below). The stereotype is that of an irresponsible teen who snatches a few items on a dare and eventually outgrows her naughtiness. But experts say more than half of adolescents who steal continue the behavior into adulthood.
Much of the appeal revolves around risk. When people shoplift and get away with it, “they feel tremendous pleasure and tremendous relief,” says Michael Nuccitelli, a psychologist in Brewster, New York, who has worked with a number of shoplifters. “From a physiological standpoint, the pleasure centers of the brain have been stimulated. Before the incident, adrenaline starts rushing through the body and the heart rate increases. Those who shoplift often get acclimated-even addicted-to the tension and release.” And according to Dina Cyphers, executive director of Theft Talk, a court-ordered counseling service in Portland, Oregon, shoplifters who keep at it start upping the ante. “The thrill they get from taking the costume jewelry or the lipstick may make them think, ‘Hmm, can I take the purse now?” Cyphers says. “They graduate to bigger and better things.”
Some women who feel depressed or insecure actually try to jolt themselves out of it by shoplifting, explains Eric Holander, director of the compulsive, impulsive, and anxiety disorders program at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, in New York City. Often, Hollander adds, women who shoplift are also struggling with eating disorders like bulimia. Such was the case with Jennifer Lane. “Weight has always been an issue with me,” she says. “I would shoplift when I was trying to diet; I couldn’t have food, so I would try to fill myself up in another way. It was my reward for keepng myself thin.”
Gregory Lombardo, M.D., a psychiatrist in New York Citv, believes char shoplifting – along with eating disorders and substance abuse – is a “consumption disorder.” But, he adds, there’s “a degree of anger with “shoplifting. It’s getting back at someone; there’s a sense of being owed something.”
That sense of entitlement can fuel a shoplifter’s engine. “A shoplifting mother might say, ‘I have to run the household, I have to do the car pool. I need to do something for me, ‘” says Caroline Kochman, deputy executive director of Shoplifters Alternative, the educational division of Shoplifters Anonymous.
Kochman notes that many people shoplift on their birthday, “because they feel they’re not getting what they deserve and they want to give themselves a gift.”
There are all kinds of excuses: For one woman, it’s that her husband is inattentive. For another, it’s that there’s too long a wait to get help from a salesclerk. Didn’t this store overcharge me? a woman might think. Anyway, a big chain like this isn’t going to miss a little white blouse. I spend a lot of money here. I should get something back.
Thoughts like these coursed through Felicia Robinson’s mind when, in her first shoplifting venture, she tried to relieve her local Wal-Mart of several videos. “It was Christmas and my grandchildren wanted these movies, which were $20 a pop,” says
Robinson, who lives in Oregon. “I said to myself, ‘ I give Wal-Mart money every month. Surely I deserve some sort of bonus.”’
Bur Robinson didn’t do this sort of thing very well. “I thought I was being slick. I put the movies in my cart, and as I was walking down an aisle, I slipped them into my purse.”
A security guard stopped her as she was making her way to the exit and asked for her pocketbook. Robinson went to jail for two days, was given two years’ probation, and paid a $200 fine, a sum far greater than the price of the videotapes.
Robinson’s clumsy, furtive behavior made her an easy mark for store detectives, who are sensitive to body language. They tend to get suspicious when shoppers duck behind pillars or clothes racks, or enter the store with large purses or bags. Security personnel train their sights on cosmetic counters, as well as jewelry, glove, handbag, and small-electronics departments.
We know its easier to steal small things,” says San Francisco – based security consultant Chris McGoey. Of course, there are plenty of exceptions. He’s watched women thin enough to double as thermometers walk into a department store and walk out-or try to walk out – looking as if they’re ready to deliver twins.
What makes them change their ways?
If, as one cliche has it, shoplifting is just a cry for help, it’s a pretty muted cry. “Shoplifters don’t think they’re going to be caught, which is why they shoplift,” McGoey says flatly. In fact, those who are arrested have probably shoplifted successfully many rimes before. As Lane says: “I got to recognize the store security people. I knew their cars in the parking lots, so I’d know what days not to go in.”
For some, being caught, convicted, fined, and jailed isn’t necessarily a permanent deterrent. “You’re at risk for repeating the offense unless you have a strong sense of guilt, remorse, and sadness for what you’ve done,” Cyphers says. “The humiliation people feel when they’re arrested is real, but it wears off”
So it was with Robinson, who, a few years after her shoplifting experience at Wal-Mart, tried to take $47 worth of school supplies from a grocery store. “I put them in my purse, which I had resting on the baby seat in the cart, and of course they stopped me as I was walking out the door.” This time, however, Robinson got 80 hours of community service, 18 months of supervised probation, $350 in court costs, and obligatory counseling.
Theft counselors try to take away shoplifters’ excuses. “We don’t ever tell people not to shoplift,” Kochman says. “No one can make people stop – not retailers, not the courts. They have to stop themselves. We tell them it’s their choice, but before they make the choice, we give them the facts and the myths.”
One myth is that shoplifting doesn’t hurt anyone, that the store can afford the loss. In fact, many stores are hurt by the losses – and they often pass them on to the consumer in the form of higher prices. According to estimates, theft from retail stores adds up to between $20 billion and $30 billion per year.
For Robinson, it was her daughter’s shame that really got to her: “For a long time she wouldn’t go into any store with me. She was afraid I would steal and she’d either be humiliated or charged as an accomplice.”
Some shoplifters just don’t possess enough willpower to stop. In some cases medication can help, Hollander says. Other shoplifters have their own home remedies. Kochman tells of a woman who turned to clipping store coupons: “She started to have the same compulsiveness about the coupons that she’d had about shoplifting, but it was legal and she was happy.”
Lane works to keep herself too busy to succumb to temptation. So far, she’s still employed and, like the coupon clipper, has found activities – craft projects and cleaning chores – to fill the hours. “I’m doing something from the time I get up until the time I go to bed,” she says.
“It’s a daily struggle,” Lane admits. But with the help of counseling, she hasn’t shoplifted for a year and a half:
“Now, I only go to stores where they know me and to stores with surveillance cameras in the fitting rooms. That way I know I won’t take anything. Because if I did, I would be in jail. The threat needs to be there for me.”
Light-fingered celebs: a history
- January 2002, Norcross, Georgia – OLGA KORBUT, 46. the former gymnast who won three gold medals at the 1972 Summer Olympic Games, was arrested and briefly jailed on charges of shoplifting $19.35 worth of food from a Publix supermarket. Claiming she forgot her wallet in the car and planned to return to pay for the groceries, Korbut had concealed figs, seasonings, tea, cheese, and syrup.
- December 2001. Beverly Hills, California – WINONA RYDER, 30, was caught on surveillance video allegedly taking $4,760 worth of clothing and other merchandise from Saks Fifth Avenue. Store security maintained that they observed Ryder for more than a half hour as she used scissors to remove sensor security tags and hid the items in a shopping bag. The actress, who commands an estimated $6 million per film, was said to be doing research for an upcoming movie role. Her lawyer, Mark Geragos, claimed that “there was no theft” and that the incident was “a misunderstanding that will be explained.”
- February 2000, New York City – Film critic REX REED, then 61, was arrested and charged with petty larceny and possession of stolen property after he had allegedly lifted three CDs from a Tower Records store. Reed, who was seen removing the plastic wrapping from one and placing the CDs in his jacket pockets and waistband, said he suffered a “senior moment” and was “not guilty of anything but stupidity.” The charges were dismissed.
- December 1993, Tampa Bay, Florida – Then-17-year-old tennis star JENNIFER CAPRIATI was arrested at a mall for taking a $15 ring from a jewelry kiosk. Capriati and a friend were reportedly trying on rings when she forgot to remove one that wasn’t hers and walked away from the vendor. When confronted by security, she expressed surprise and returned the merchandise. The matter was resolved without formal charges.
- May 1988, Williamsport, Pennsylvania – Former Miss America BESS MYERSON, then 64, was arrested for stealing nail polish, earrings, batteries, and sandals (combined value: $44) from a Hill’s discount department store. When stopped by security as she was exiting through a side door, Myerson claimed that she had forgotten to lock her car and had planned to return to the store. Although she pleaded guilty, her lawyer stated she didn’t intend to leave the store without paying, but was “distracted by the pressure of recent circumstances” – referring to Myerson’s highly publicized trial on bribery charges. -Jill Sieracki
“It’s Like Jumping Out of a Plane”
By Katherine Gleeson, as told to S. Kirk Walsh
It was five days before Christmas, and there I sat, handcuffed to a filing cabinet in the back room of a discount drugstore. On the other side of the door, I could hear shoppers rushing about, scooping up stocking stuffers and happily chatting as they waited to pay. I was waiting, too, but in my case it was for the police. How can I put my family through this again? I wondered.
At that point in my life, I had everything: My husband and I had built a house on ten acres of property in the woods in Michigan. He made a comfortable living as an engineer for an automobile company. But none of it mattered when the urge to steal came over me. Just minutes before, I had stuffed ten CDs from the drugstore’s rack into my shopping bag. A store detective saw me do it, escorted me to the back room, and called the police.
The first time I stole, I was seven years old. I swiped a Baby Ruth bar from a mom-and-pop store because I wanted to impress a friend. I got caught, and my parents were called, but I wasn’t “scared straight.” As a teenager I stole sporadically. After I married, the problem got worse.
At first I focused on small items like spices in a grocery store. Instead of buying a cheap oregano or ginger, I would steal the most expensive brand. In my mind, the store was charging too much for these products. Then I moved on to clothing-nightgowns, blouses, or bras-because such soft items were easy to fold into my purse. As time passed, I found myself buying larger purses so I could stuff in more things. I got a real charge out of stealing. It’s like jumping out of an airplane.
But I didn’t always get away with it. After being arrested three times, the rush began to diminish. Instead of feeling exhilarated, I felt bad. And I was afraid. Still, I kept on.
Finally, my husband threatened to leave me: He said if I shoplifted one more time, that was it. Of course, I stole some more, but he never left. We rarely spoke about the incidents until I was arrested for stealing those CDs from the drugstore. I spent the night in jail. Fed up with my behavior, my husband insisted that I get help. The lawyer he found for me referred me to a therapist who specialized in kleptomania.
I also started going to meetings of Cleptomaniacs and Shoplifters Anonymous, a 12-step program for people who are compulsive shoplifters. At my first meeting I was amazed to see people from all walks of life: lawyers, doctors, secretaries, homemakers. I still attend meetings every other week. I think less about stealing and experience fewer urges.
I haven’t shoplifted in two years. Now I spend my days taking care of my grandchildren, visiting with friends, reading books. It feels so good to be in a store and not have to worry about someone saying in my ear, “Come with me.”