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The Shoplifters on Your Beat

Only 5% of shoplifting crimes are related to financial need; meaning the individual legitimately needs something that they can’t afford.  So what are motives behind the other 95% of the cases that tie up law enforcement’s, the court’s, and retailer’s time, resources, and money?  Are they all kleptomaniacs?  No, not even close.

This the 2nd shoplifting dispatch call on your beat today; at least this retailer has surveillance equipment. You wonder who you pissed off to get the mall beat this round.  Sometimes the suspect is cooperative, sometimes not. Over a certain dollar amount it is grand theft--under that amount, petty theft. If the suspect went into the store with the intent to steal, he/she could be charged with burglary. This definitely means paper, quite possibly a trip to jail or a detention center, and that someone else will have to take other, probably more pressing calls on your beat.

The suspect detained is a 28 year old Caucasian female, attractive, well dressed and groomed, and has more money in her wallet than you see in a pay period. She is crying, and is extremely remorseful. You view the tape, and see her putting a package of ballpoint pens in her purse. She makes purchases totaling $46.33 for various other items, but does not pay for the pens. You run her; she has priors for petty theft. The store manager desires prosecution. You ask yourself, "Why in the world didn't she just pay for the pens?" It would have certainly made both your and her day easier.

Ten Fun Shoplifting Facts for Law Officers to Know and Share

  1. Shoplifting is also the nation's most expensive crime costing U.S. businesses more than $30 billion a year.
  2. There are an estimated 27 million shoplifters (or 1 in 11 people) in our nation today.
  3. More than 10 million people have been caught shoplifting in the last five years.
  4. Shoplifters’ report that they are caught an average of only once every 49 thefts. They are turned over to law enforcement about half the time. 
  5. Many shoplifters buy and steal merchandise in the same visit.
  6. Habitual shoplifters steal an average of 1.6 times per week.
  7. Shoplifting is usually not a premeditated crime; 73% of shoplifters don't plan their thefts.
  8. 55% of adult shoplifters state that they started stealing as teenagers.
  9. Over half of adults and one-third of adolescents report difficulty stopping shoplifting crimes, even after getting caught.
  10. Most shoplifters who have developed a habit or addiction believe they should be punished according to the law when caught.

Types of Shoplifters and Their Motives

There is no profile for a shoplifter; it could be anyone. There are basically two types of shoplifters: the non-professional (97%) and the professional (3%).  According to The Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft, there are seven recognized types of shoplifters which are defined by their motives:

  • Addictive Compulsive Shoplifters: 75% of shoplifting thefts are by individuals who are considered addictive-compulsive shoplifters. They will typically steal items that are not expensive, often to give them as gifts to others. They usually have the money to pay for the item(s). They may also indulge in other compulsive behaviors such as overeating, substance abuse or gambling. Shoplifting is frequently described as equally addicting as drugs. These individuals know right from wrong, and typically show guilt, remorse, and shame when they are caught. They rarely have had prior arrests other than petty thefts.
  • Drug/Alcohol/Gambling Addicted:  An additional 5% are addicts who steal to support their habits, which include substance abuse and gambling. They also will take more expensive or multiple items. They are much less organized than the professional shoplifter. When detained they may be carrying drugs or paraphernalia. Their priors are usually more serious in nature.
  • Indigent Shoplifters:  5% of shoplifting crimes are truly related to economic need. The individual simply cannot pay for items of necessity including food, diapers, clothing or toiletries. If they are caught, they will often show remorse, but will justify their behaviors based on their economic situation. They frequently blame others for their current financial state.
  • Thrill Seeker Shoplifters:  The thrill-seekers, those who steal solely for excitement, represent 5% of shoplifters. They are frequently juveniles, and often steal in groups.
  • Professional Shoplifters:  Only about 3% of shoplifters are considered professionals, stealing for profit or to support a certain lifestyle. These are your burglary suspects. They enter the store with the intention to steal, and may bring in tools to assist them, and have planned out ways to conceal the items effectively. They take bigger ticket items as well. Panties or a box of paperclips are not on their agenda. They are the most likely shoplifter to resist arrest and attempt to flee. If detained, they will remain cool and lack remorse.
  • Absent Minded Shoplifters:  1% of all shoplifters really just didn't get it. This group includes the elderly or others who may have memory or other cognitive impairments.
  • Kleptomaniacs:  <5% steal for apparently no reason at all. These individuals are usually considered kleptomaniacs.

What is Kleptomania Really?

Kleptomania is a very rare mental illness, and is classified as an impulse control disorder in the DSMIV. Other impulse control disorders include pathological gambling, pyromania and trichotillomania (chronic hair-pulling). It is estimated that over one million people in the United States have kleptomania; about 0.06% of the population. Studies of shoplifters suggest that fewer than 5% would fulfill the criteria for a diagnosis of kleptomania. Kleptomania usually begins in adolescence and continues for about 20 years. The disorder is believed to be more common in females than males.

By definition, kleptomania is a recurrent failure to resist the impulse to steal items that are not needed for personal use or for monetary value. The individual senses tension immediately before the theft. During the theft they experience pleasure, gratification or relief. The theft does not represent an expression of anger or vengeance. The actions are not related to a psychotic disorder.

Kleptomaniacs realize that their actions are illegal and harmful, yet the urge to steal is too powerful to resist. Their thefts are not premeditated, they are impulsive. They usually steal items that they could otherwise afford. Individuals with kleptomania often have favorite types of items to steal: small toys, packets of sugar, underwear, batteries, remote controls, sunglasses, shampoo, etc. They may even hoard these items. There may be a pattern to their thefts, but they frequently can't recognize it. After the theft they will feel guilty, remorseful, and may even loathe themselves. Yet, the urge returns, and the cycle repeats itself, even after the individual has been arrested multiple times. Kleptomaniacs frequently have additional psychiatric problems, including mood, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive, personality, eating, and substance abuse disorders.

Unfortunately, kleptomaniacs usually do not seek treatment due to their shame and a fear of legal consequences. The prognosis for kleptomania is fair. Treatment usually includes cognitive and behavioral therapy, as well as psychotropic medications. Medicines that have demonstrated success include SSRI antidepressants (Prozac), mood stabilizers (Lithium), and opiate antagonists (Naltrexone--used to treat alcohol and drug addictions). Many kleptomaniacs develop self-control strategies in an effort to refrain from stealing--avoiding shopping malls, shopping only when with someone else, or sometimes they may just stop going shopping. There is a support hotline. The Shoplifters Anonymous toll-free number is             (800) 848-9595      .

Kleptomania as a Legal Defense

In most jurisdictions, a person may defend criminal charges against him/herself on the grounds of insanity. The insanity defense comes in two forms: cognitive and volitional. Cognitive insanity relates to an individual who cannot distinguish right from wrong. Volitional insanity relates to an individual who is unable to resist impulses (due to mental impairment) making him/her unable to act in conformance with the law. Lorena Bobbitt was found not guilty based on an irresistible impulse defense, a decision that still has most men cringing. The U.S. Department of Justice excludes kleptomania (along with pyromania and other impulse control disorders) as a possible defense. In other jurisdictions kleptomania is generally not considered a viable legal defense, although it has certainly been tried. It is difficult to claim insanity if you know you are committing a crime, know right from wrong, and are remorseful.

By the time you have finished reading this article, there may be another pending shoplifting call on your beat.