Amateur shoplifters

I have never been able to understand why people think petty thieves are funny. They joke and laugh and steal stuff and then people laugh when we talk about their capers like its hilarious comedy. I don’t laugh. I hate these people. I’ve had stuff lifted from my office all the time by these sticky finger people and it bugs the heck out of me. One time a guy actually tried to steal a nice fountain pen right off my legal pad sitting in front of me on the table. That was one of my favorite pens. I seriously thought about trying a little Sharia law and taking one of his hands in exchange.

The thing is, just about every amateur shoplifter I have ever had the displeasure to talk to thinks shoplifting isn’t bad. They say things like “so what?” and “the stores make too much money” or something like that. The only thing that bothers them is that they got caught and it slowed them down a little bit. The whole arrest and booking thing was an inconvenient crimp in their thieving lifestyle. They are headed right back out there to pinch stuff as soon as they are done talking with me. Nothing is going to stop them. After all, once they get their first minor theft conviction they aren’t going to get a legitimate job ever again in their lives. So, their thinking goes, might as well get as much as you can. And apparently they do, as the cost to U.S. retailers for everything they steal per year is supposed to be $10 billion.

Five finger discounters are one of the few types of defendants that get me mad. I have nothing but disgust for them and they are everywhere. Apparently law enforcement believes there are about 30 million shoplifters in America, which is about 9% of the population, plus or minus a few. That’s a huge number of shoplifters. The U.S. Center for Disease Control says that about 9% of all Americans are depressed at least occasionally, placing depression on par with the sticky fingers disease. There are ads for depression drugs on TV all the time. Why haven’t the big pharmaceutical companies come up with a drug for thievery?


The amateur shoplifters are the worst. They get all excited about stealing like its fun. You sit down with them and it’s just one long string of dumb justifications that are a variation on “I’m going to get mine.” I’ve never figured out what that meant. Do they think they’re owed something? Or, more likely, that they know all their friends are out stealing and if they don’t get going they’re going to miss out?

Most of the time the amateurs take little stuff. Supposedly the most shoplifted things in the world are Gillette Mach 3 razors, toothbrushes, DVDs, batteries, underwear and raw steaks. I’m relying pretty heavily for this list on Rachel Shteir’s book ‘The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting’ (Penguin Press HC 2011, 272 pages, $25.95). It’s a good read and I encourage you to buy it if you want to read more about the history of shoplifting in America.

Nice suit Winona.
Did you pay for it?

Amateurs always forget about the video cameras, just like Winona Ryder did in 2001. In the old days the only video I would get was something really grainy. It was black and white and low focus. The dark plastic covers for the cameras on the ceiling got dusty and collected dead bugs which made the video quality even worse. There was never any sound, and many times the video only took a frame every other second. All you get was some kind of choppy, blurry sequence of bad pictures taken from so far overhead that you can’t really see anything.

Not so any more, folks! Most big stores have invested in modern cameras and they are all over the place. They install them in displays slightly above head level so they are never blocked. The quantum leap forward in technology means the picture is in color and clear enough to make out the faces of your clients. Watching these videos is almost a voyeuristic thrill. You can watch them look around as if they think they coast is clear. You see them pick up some tools and look over their shoulder while they stuff them down their pants. You can see their stupid expressions as they stuff the toys into bags from other stores they have been carrying up and down the isles.

Not your best angle, Lindsay.

The only issue with these new cameras is that often times the video footage is stored in a proprietary format that can’t be converted. Or if it can, the store won’t do it for whatever reason. You have to put up with four frames from the video like the one to the left printed out on each piece of paper. That’s enough to get the basics, except that these amateurs will say something dumb like “that doesn’t look like me.” Amateurs never say “but they got the wrong one.” It’s always something like they can’t prove it.

Well, yes they can. The juries take one look at these videos and convict the amateurs. Don’t forget that during the trial the store security guard is going to point over at the amateur shoplifter sitting next to me and says that’s the one who did it. Then the cop who arrested them in the parking lot says “that’s the one” too. Even an idiot gets the message that it’s them.

Every time they say the cops can’t prove it, I say they can go pay $500 for a polygraph and if they pass, the prosecutor will drop the charges. They never follow through, though. I don’t tell them that we are under no obligation to pass along the results to the police if they fail. They just assume that’s what will happen and I’m OK if it helps shut them up. I’m really tired of listening to their constant stream of lies, anyway.

Oh please.

Speaking of Winona, when she got caught stealing clothing from Saks Fifth Avenue, the store already had an imprint of her credit card on file. All she had to do was go up to a register and tell them she wanted to buy the stuff. She had the money and it would have been really easy to just wave the stuff at the clerk for a few minutes. What an amateur. She didn’t even have to steal. She just did it for some dumb reason known only to her. Of course, I bet you thought she was innocent like a lot of other people. Come on, you have one of those “Free Winona” t-shirts in your closet, don’t you?

Flash robs

A flash rob just about ready to start.

Flash mobs are kind of cool. They do some kind of spontaneous dance or a wedding proposal out in public somewhere. They’re fun social events that suddenly makes free theater out of your otherwise routine trip to the mall.

Flash robs, though, are not fun. What they do is arrange a time and a place over Twitter or something for everyone to converge on one store and wait for some signal. Then at the same moment everyone suddenly grabs as much as they can carry and runs. If it’s done well, they overwhelm the security systems because it happens all at once. They run for every door and it’s over in a minute or less. They rely on speed and numbers like a herd of gazelles. Sure the slow one might get eaten. But the rest of them get away, right?

Another flash rob just about ready to go. Notice that these gentlemen remembered to wear their hoodies to try to hide from the cameras.

The dirty hippy thief

In Rachel Shteir’s book that I mention above, she makes the point that in the 1960’s and the 1970’s shoplifting became a kind of hippie social protest. She quotes the radical writer Abbie Hoffman from his book, aptly titled “Steal This Book,” who said stealing “is an act of revolutionary love.” That free love thing may have been going on forty years ago, but I’ve never met a shoplifter with a political message. Maybe they still exist but they’re either too dumb to think through the politics of consumerism or they are too organized to care.

-Samuel Owen

© Samuel Owen 2012. All rights reserved. Please read important notices and disclaimers by clicking here.

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