Jeffrey A. Schaler, Ph.D.

In The News

Shoplifters of the world . . .

Hartford Advocate, Thursday, August 12, 2004
Hartford, Connecticut

At Westfarms Mall, police make at least an arrest a day -- you won't believe who's doing the stealing

by Alexander Dworkowitz - August 12, 2004

Shoplifters of the world . . .

It's Wednesday morning at Hartford Community Court, and three shoplifters from New Britain have arrived. The three women, all about 18 years old, sit among a group accused of public drinking, marijuana possession, and other misdemeanors that make up the bread and butter of a court based on punishments of community service. The three talk in the front row, sometimes telling jokes, other times glancing about nervously. The judge walks in, all rise, and the prosecutor Kevin Shay calls out a name of a young woman sitting at the back of the room.

"She was caught shoplifting at Filene's at the Westfarms Mall," Shay explains, reading from his file. The woman agrees to two days of community service and walks off. The next name is called.

"She was caught shoplifting at JC Penny at the Westfarms Mall," the prosecutor sounds again. She too quickly pleads guilty and heads out.

Another woman's name.

"She was also caught shoplifting at Filene's at the Westfarms Mall," says the prosecutor as a slight smile grows on his face.

The girls from New Britain laugh. It's a laugh that breaks the tension in the courtroom, and it's a laugh of relief. The teenagers suddenly find that they are not degenerates -- a select trio who steals and deserves to have the book thrown at them. Instead, they are just like everyone else.

That day, the three were among a dozen people who were given community service for stealing merchandise from Westfarms. Most of the people who are busted are also in their teens or 20s, and almost all of them are women. The number of shoplifters that day was not an anomaly. Instead, every Wednesday, the court books a similar number of people caught stealing at the mall. Almost everyone pleads guilty, serves the community service, and moves on with their lives.

How common is shoplifting at Westfarms? Last year, Farmington Police, who cover most of the mall, arrested 261 people there on charges of shoplifting. West Hartford Police, who patrol the rest of the mall, estimated they nabbed an additional 130. Police, on average, are arresting a shoplifter at the mall more than once a day. Those numbers, of course, reflect only the 2 to 5 percent of shoplifters who are actually caught.

"I speak with store owners, and they say it's absolutely astounding," says Jeffrey A. Schaler, an American University psychology professor who writes on the mentality of criminals and addicts. "It's just constant. They try to stay on top of it. And they can't."

Experts typically divide shoplifters into four categories. The group that has got the most media attention as of late are the professional thieves, some of whom are organized in shoplifting or "boosting" gangs.

An organized gang can steal thousands of dollars worth of clothing in seconds, and resell it on the street for an easy profit.

Most of the groups come to Connecticut malls from New York City, says Farmington Police Sgt. Bill Tyler, who estimates about 30 percent of shoplifters in Westfarms are pros. A Farmington police officer who was assigned to the mall raised the issue a few years ago, and the state legislature passed a law making it a crime to walk into a mall with a "booster bag," a bag full of aluminum foil designed to throw off store alarms.

"If I walk into a mall with a foil-lined bag, lined with duct tape, what I am there for?" Tyler asks.

There are also drug addicts, who steal to pay for their habit, and kleptomaniacs, who make up a very small percentage of the actual thieves. But the largest group is everyday people. Most are young, but middle-aged parents and even seniors are sometimes caught.

There's the well-dressed West Hartford college student who turned herself in after stealing.

There's the 46-year-old Bosnian immigrant who speaks no English and brought her family to court to help plead on her behalf.

There's the Hartford teenage mother who concealed merchandise in her baby's stroller.

There's the Torrington father who got a little too fond of the shirts at Lord & Taylor.

And there's a pair of 20-something women from Middletown who concocted a scheme to steal clothing, return it for gift cards, and then sell the gift cards on the street.

Ask any of those caught why they stole, and the answers are unremarkable.

"Why did I do it? I have no idea," says a young woman who spoke to the Advocate after pleading guilty in court to swiping a $264 silver bracelet from Westfarms.

"There's a lot of things I guess I wanted and I can't get them," says another woman, 21, who grabbed $200 worth of Echo clothing.

But what is remarkable is how the typical shoplifter has little idea of how elaborate security is becoming at malls. Modern security is becoming more sophisticated to deal with shoplifting gangs, but more typically is people like the women above who steal. Cutting-edge technology is used to nail a simple and somewhat nave criminal.

While large stores used to rely on clerks and a security guard or two to keep an eye on shoplifters, they now have teams of store detectives and loss-prevention specialists who keep an eye on the customers from behind the scenes. With the advent of digital technology, the video cameras the store detectives use are getting an upgrade. The use of digital cameras now gives investigators a sharper image and, says Daniel Butler, vice president of retail operations for the National Retail Federation, "It also allows them to store any type of data indefinitely," .

Companies are also investing in "master control rooms," locations away from malls where security experts compare footage sent to them from different stores located across a region of the country. The systems are designed to track shoplifting gangs as they move from state to state. It's unclear whether the technology is now in use at Westfarms, since the major retailers at the mall would not comment on their security.

But the biggest technological change is about to arrive. Wal-Mart, the world's largest corporation, announced last year that it would require its major suppliers to include radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags in their products. RFID tags are microchips that react to radio waves sent to them from a "reader." The tags contain information describing the nature of the product to which they are attached. In a year's time, Wal-Mart employees only will have to approach a shipment of goods with a reader, and their computers will instantly register what products are in that shipment. There are high hopes for the technology.

"Much as a dark room becomes luminous when lights are switched on, the historically opaque supply chains on which so much of the world's economic activity is built will become visible," Dr. Sanjay Sarma of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an expert in RFID, told a Congressional subcommittee last month.

The technology doesn't need to be limited to products. A PC Magazine columnist suggested concerned pet owners implant an RFID tag in their animals to keep track of them in case they get lost, and it's not hard to imagine a paranoid parent tucking such chips behind their child's ear. On the other side of the coin, RFID is a privacy advocate's worst nightmare.

The radio chip can easily be extended to combat shoplifting. All retailers need to do is aim their readers outside the store and they can tell what's leaving the premises that shouldn't be. After Wal-Mart announced it was pursuing the technology, Target agreed to it, too, and some believe RFID will replace the bar code system across the country in a matter of years.

The power of such technology suggests that shoplifters are facing extinction. But the benefits can be easily exaggerated. Technology already exists to thwart RFID signals, and if shoplifters have been able to beat the current scanners, there's a good chance they'll foil the new system, too.

And some believe that higher technology can have the reverse effect of encouraging more shoplifting. British psychologist Rachel Lawes, who advises retailers on marketing, says the more a company invests in advanced technology, the more faceless it becomes, and the less qualms shoplifters have about stealing from them.

"If you look at the way shoplifters talk about what they are up to, they do draw a very sharp distinction between small businesses, having a recognizable human owner, and giant corporations, which are seen as kind of being out to rebuff consumers, routinely overcharging for goods that are of dubious quality in the first place," she says.

Some see a tie between those who have no moral problem with shoplifting and those who don't like the power of modern corporations and capitalism.

Steal this Book by '60s radical Abbie Hoffman, set the bar by advocating shoplifting as a way to survive. Nowadays, type in "How to Shoplift" in Google, and one of the first hits that comes up is a website that goes on about how in capitalism, we are "alienated from our labor and hence dependent on the ruling classes for commodities as basic as food and clothing."

"It's a way of expressing resentment at a specific company," says Schaler, the American University professor. "But it is also a way of expressing resentment towards corporations that have a certain amount of wealth. It is a way of expressing resentment against wealth itself."

Of course, the average shoplifter nervously waiting for a judge at Hartford Community Court Wednesday mornings is not a disgruntled communist. Still, as Lawes points out, a person doesn't need to want the overthrow of society to feel morally comfortable stealing from a company that makes billions a year. Forty years ago, a teenager might have bought clothing from a local, family-owned store with faces and names he recognized. Now, teens buy from corporate behemoths headquartered on the opposite side of the country.

D espite the prevalence of shoplifting, in many ways it remains an invisible crime. Retailers avoid talking about it openly, worrying the negative publicity could hurt business. And don't go to Hartford Community Court for records on how many shoplifters are being prosecuted. Judge Jorge A. Simon tells the shoplifters that if they fulfill their community service, the court will erase all records of their prosecution.

"It is as if this incident never took place," Simon says.

The statistics that do exist on shoplifting are vague. For every $100 in goods a store sells, roughly $2 of goods disappears, according to the University of Florida's National Retail Security Survey.

In 2001, the total value of goods lost to thieves in the United States was about $31.3 billion. But retailers simply make an educated guess as to where that valuable merchandise goes. Most companies figure about half the loss is attributable to employees, while a third is stolen by shoplifters and the rest is a result of administrative error or vendor fraud. So the survey concluded shoplifters took $10 billion in goods in 2001 ($37 taken for every person in the country). In reality, that $10 billion figure is just a ballpark figure, experts say.

Ohio Northern University Sociology Professor Keith F. Durkin says the imprecision of numbers surrounding shoplifting discourages academics from making the crime a subject of dissertation.

"You wouldn't get into a topic like that because it is tough to defend," he says. "There are no definitive answers."

The other statistical source is surveys of shoppers. One often-quoted survey says one out of 11 Americans has confessed to shoplifting. Some studies find a lower percentage of shoplifters, and others find a much higher one. A study of two British high schools published in the country's Journal of Consumer Behaviour found that 51 percent of the students admitted to shoplifting.

It's no coincidence that shoplifters are prosecuted next to underage drinkers and marijuana smokers in Hartford's court. Some see it as a category of criminals who don't act like criminals, who don't see themselves as criminals, and would likely not commit any other crime. It's a group of people who society doesn't want to let go without a reprimand, but doesn't feel comfortable throwing in jail either.

John C. Kilburn, Jr., sociology professor at Eastern Connecticut State University, points out that the line between the typical shoplifter and the typical shopper is a thin one.

"I venture to say that the vast majority of Americans have taken something," Kilburn says. "Who hasn't eaten a few grapes from the supermarket or taken a pen from the bank? As I frequently tell my criminology class, we are all criminals."




2004 Hartford Advocate