Shoplifting: The five-finger discount

August 2, 2018

There are about 27 million shoplifters in the United States today. That equates to one out of every 11 people, according to the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention (NASP). And many are caught in the act: In fact, 10 million people have been “caught red-handed” during the past five years.

Interestingly enough, shoplifters don’t necessary take what they need. They take what they want. The National Retail Federation reports that the most frequently stolen items include chewing gum, the painkiller Advil, the weight-loss drug Alli, cell phones, the allergy drug Claritin, the hair growth product Rogaine, Red Bull energy drinks, Dyson vacuums, Bumble and Bumble hair-care products, Cover Girl cosmetics, Crest Whitestrips, and deodorant.

Whom are the shoplifters among us? In 2004, the University of Florida found that  middle-aged adults between the ages of 35 and 54 shoplift more than children and teens—and that, contrary to most of our assumptions, it is men (not women) who are the most light-fingered. However, many shoplifters steal their first item—usually for a thrill—in their teens.

What’s more, a 2008 Columbia University study of more than 40,000 Americans covered by New York Magazine found that it’s not the indigent who are doing the most thieving. “Shoplifting . . . was more common among those with higher education and income, suggesting that financial considerations are unlikely to be the main motivator,” the researchers concluded.

But, motivated they are. The NASP says that shoplifters bring home about $13 billion worth of goods nationwide on an annual basis. And yet they cannot be stopped. A National Retail Security survey  conducted in 2017 found that retail inventory continues to shrink—and that 36.5% of that lost merchandise is due to shoplifting, while 30% is attributed to internal theft.

Indeed, since the 1970s, retailers have used cameras, security guards, sensor tags, shopping carts with wheels that lock when pushed out of parking lots and chips that track products from the factory into your home. But shoplifters—whether working in teams to bolt out the door with luxury items, searching for discarded receipts to steal matching merchandise, sneaking wares into aluminum-lined “booster bags” that deactivate sensors, or smuggling high-ticket items into packaging for lower-priced items —keep stealing.

For a July 7 story, The Washington Post interviewed about 100 shoplifters. Many talked about the crime as though it were an illness. “I have been good but am struggling with it every day,” one said. “It is an addiction like everything else.”

However, according to the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual, fewer than 5% of self-identified shoplifters have kleptomania. Meanwhile, the Columbia researchers concluded that “a lifetime history of shoplifting was common.”

If shoplifting, like alcoholism or ADHD, is a disease, the cure has yet to be found. Talk therapy, according to a 2004 study of patients with kleptomania, does not help people stop stealing. Pharmaceuticals such as Lexapro, which reduces depression and anxiety, have not been shown to affect shoplifters. Naltrexone, a drug used to treat alcoholism, seems to suppress the urge to steal in some people, but a study completed in 2009 by researchers at the University of Minnesota included only 25 patients.

Finally, while the vast majority of shoplifters are non-professionals, about 3% steal solely for resale or profit as a business, NASP says. .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.

Research contact: NASP@shopliftingprevention.org

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