Shoplifting—Petty Offense or Serious Crime?
IN A large department store in the southeastern United States, a stooped, silver-haired man stands in the stationery aisle nervously fondling a packaged pen-and-pencil set. Anxiously he looks up and down the aisle. Slowly his frail body does a half turn and his eyes scan the area behind him. His right hand drops to his side and in one flawless flick of a finger the tiny narrow box disappears up his coat sleeve. Walking slowly away he casually drops his hand into his coat pocket and the pen-and-pencil set finds a new resting place. Before the aged man can reach the exit door, however, a firm hand has taken him in tow and they disappear behind closed doors.
Twenty-three minutes later two preteenage girls leisurely examine sweaters on display under a large sign, BACK TO SCHOOL WEAR. One sweater has obviously caught their fancy. Each takes a turn holding it up to their small frame for size. They caress the soft fabric. They look at the price tag. The cost is high. They pool their thoughts, and out of this comes giggling, laughter and a decision. The absence of a salesperson is noted. One girl quickly lifts her skirt, ties the sweater around her waist in awkward fashion and allows her skirt to fall in place again. Before they can reach the front door an alarm sounds and, as if by some prearranged scheme, a detective from security has the nervous and bewildered girls in custody. They, too, disappear behind closed doors.
At almost the same time a girl in her early 20’s, carrying a wrapped package, is carefully examining an electric clock radio. She runs her fingers over the highly polished case. A splendid item for any feminine boudoir. With clock in hand, she casually walks down the aisle a few feet and when she reappears the clock radio is gone. It had disappeared into a false bottom in the wrapped package! There is a scuffle at the front door. The girl breaks for a waiting car. Two detectives nab her and the driver. The four disappear behind the closed doors.
The accounts you have just read are true. Shoplifters all! It is estimated that one out of three small businesses that are forced to declare bankruptcy do so as the direct result of shoplifting. It is the largest single monetary crime in the nation.
In 1978 bank robbers in the United States scooped up from banks’ tills and vaults a staggering $25 million dollars in cash and negotiable securities. In 1977 the estimated losses from shoplifting were set at approximately $8 thousand million—$20 million dollars a day. Experts could see that figure skyrocketing to an excess of $10 thousand million for the year 1979.
Two thirds of all shoplifters apprehended in most states are under the age of 21. Youths, however, do not have a monopoly on shoplifting. The aged man mentioned at the beginning of this article was 90 years old. On the other hand, the two small girls were ages 10 and 11. In fact, according to some experts, the fifth grade spawns the earliest ages for beginning shoplifters.
Very often where two are involved, as in the case of the two small girls mentioned above, shoplifting is done on a dare. With others it may be a requirement to join a club, or results from peer pressure, or is a bid for attention. It is reported that very few shoplift because they really need the item but are unable to pay the price.
These are the amateurs. They are of all ages, from all walks of life, and they steal for many different reasons. Their numbers are many in comparison with the professionals. They are devastating to the vulnerable merchant.
The professional shoplifter is just that. He “earns” his livelihood by converting his thefts into cash. Consequently, the things he steals are more expensive than those lifted by the amateur. Many professionals will take orders for television sets, radios, men’s suits, shoes—the list is endless. Ah, if those fitting-room walls could only talk!
When a security officer for a store apprehends a professional he considers this a bonus. But it is with the professional that the security agent must be alert. Very often the thief will carry a weapon and, as a last resort, he will use it. When apprehended the professional shoplifter can be dangerous.
In order to stem the tide of shoplifting, the majority of stores throughout the United States are now implementing a get-tough policy. Millions of dollars have been spent on sophisticated electronic surveillance equipment. The 90-year-old man apprehended for lifting the pen-and-pencil set was watched on camera and then by means of two-way radio the nearest store detective was directed to him. Similarly, the woman with the clock radio was caught. In the case of the two small girls with the sweater, a very small electronic tab concealed on the garment, to be taken off by the salesperson at the time the item is purchased, gave off a small alarm when it passed through a electronic eye.
Many stores have started special programs of training employees in spotting and detecting basic shoplifter’s mannerisms and techniques. Some stores have even hired actors to pose as shoplifters to stage arrests so onlookers can see that the store is carrying out a get-tough policy. The shoplifter also has the innocent looking “shopper,” one of a number of store detectives very often pushing a cart, to contend with.
When the 90-year-old man was taken to the store’s security office he was first searched to see if he was carrying a weapon. Then he was read his rights, not a requirement, however. Because it was determined that this was his first offense, and due to his advanced age, he was asked to sign a confession of his guilt and was ordered never to come into the store again. The two small girls, ages 10 and 11, had the trauma not only of being apprehended in the store before onlookers, but of having their parents come to the store and “bail” them out with the warning of what would happen if they were caught again. Hopefully this will suffice in teaching the girls that shoplifting is a serious crime.
In the case of the young woman, however, they were not so merciful. A search of the car yielded several hundred dollars in stolen merchandise lifted from that store and others in the city. She was part of a small band filling “orders” for stolen items. She and her driver companion face prosecution as three-time offenders.
What a Parent Can Do
Are you a concerned parent? Tell your children that shoplifting is a serious crime. Merchants are taking strong action against shoplifters regardless of the value of the item stolen, or of sex, age, race or social standing. Explain that a criminal conviction for shoplifting means a police record that can keep them from getting a job, winning scholarships or even borrowing money. It can affect anything that requires a routine check of their past.
What would the girl who would bring home the shoplifted sweater have told her parents? That it was a garment swap with her friend? This can be the “perfect” alibi to the unsuspecting parent. Would you hesitate to ask where unfamiliar clothes or accessories came from if you knew your child had spent more than his or her allowance? If your child always had a habit of “finding” things, would you look into it? Bringing home bargains that are too good to be true might test your good sense of value, or the $40 skirt marked down to $5 may cause you to wonder about the spiraling economy. A favorite raincoat or an overly large handbag that only ‘goes shopping’ may be a warning signal. Do not be afraid to ask why. It is better that the parent ask than store security personnel.
A year-old law in Oregon allows stores to send letters to shoplifters demanding return of the merchandise stolen, plus the price of the items, plus a fine. A refusal to pay ends up in small claims court. Most offenders pay. If the offender is a juvenile, the parents are held responsible. Some are indignant. One wrote to a store: “You will be happy to know that the child who did the shoplifting is now gagged and bound with rope in our basement since this is the only way a person is positive they have complete control over their children.” However, other parents are appreciative, thanking the stores for making them aware of the problem and letting the children pay off the fines through newspaper routes and their allowances.
Encourage your child to resist those dares and pressures from so-called friends. Yielding to them can only lead to severe consequences. This old world and its greed are rapidly passing away. Encourage your child to shun the taking of things that belong to someone else, a practice that is so much a part of this world. ‘Thieves will not inherit God’s kingdom.’ (1 Cor. 6:10) Instill in him hatred for what is bad and a love for what is good, and he will have possessions beyond belief in Jehovah God’s righteous new order so near at hand.—Prov. 8:13.