Shoplifting costs U.S. businesses more than $30 billion a year, but studies show it remains an underreported crime — and one on the rise in the wake of an improving economy. While people seem to be drawn to more “ethical stealing” during a recession, one explanation for the rise in theft, says Rachel Shteir, author of the new book The Steal, is that people feel less guilty for shoplifting when they see the excess of celebrities and other wealthy people.
In a sense, people think it’s fine to steal because it’s seems so trivial compared to what others have. Shteir’s book examines the cultural history of theft, from the first major trial of shoplifting in London in 1800 to the cases of celebrities like Winona Ryder. TIME spoke to Shteir about shoplifting’s causes and effects, the most popular products stolen each year and the best method to combat the crime.
Why is shoplifting so underreported and understudied compared to other crimes?
Because often the items people shoplift are tiny items, like lipstick or Oil of Olay face cream. Most shoplifting is amateur shoplifting, meaning it’s not professional gang shoplifting, which is very hard to prosecute at the federal level. Most of it is done by ordinary people. Stores cannot possibly go after everyone who steals a tube of lipstick — it’s not practical from the stores’ point of view. So it’s a combination of the tininess of the objects and the fact that middle class people do it. People with a lot of money do it. And in the past, it’s been looked at as a womens’ crime, and we trivialize anything that has to do with women, sadly.
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In the book, you cite a study that finds Americans with incomes of $70,000 a year shoplift 30% more than those earning up to $20,000. Why is that?
Entitlement is certainly a factor. Rage is a factor. A lot of people feel that they are the victims in whatever way — whether it’s their life circumstances, or that they’re the victims of a larger economic plot — like Bernie Madoff. There’s this idea of avenging yourself on an impersonal entity, like a store. You see what others have — like on TMZ — and you think, ‘What difference does this make?’
Is there a class divide in prosecuting shoplifting?
It’s really rare for a celebrity shoplifter or a wealthy shoplifter to do any significant time. They really have to be chronic shoplifters. Otherwise, we forgive them. There’s a big discrepancy because we are very unsettled by the fact that people who don’t need to shoplift, do.
How do chronic, professional shoplifters affect the plight of amateur shoplifters?
Legislatively, in the last 10 years, the retail industry has tried to really separate the way it prosecutes professional gangs from amateur people shoplifting. Sometimes the categories of shoplifting get confusing, and that’s how ordinary people get hurt. For example, in some states, if you shoplift a bottle of NyQuil, that can be a felony because it contains [ingredients] that gangs use to make meth. So people who are just amateurs doing a one-off get caught up in a legislative push without anticipating that.
There’s a chapter in the book called “Robin Hoods 2.0.” Is there such a thing as ethical shoplifting?
There’s a pervasive idea that individuals are getting the raw deal, that stores are the true criminals. They’re multinationals, they can afford for people to shoplift, they’re insured — there are many things that people say. In that chapter, I’m just laying out what they say. It’s a very powerful theme in American life — the idea of the individual criminal, the outlaw, the pioneer, the person who’s living by their wits. I think that’s what this taps into.
In general, women mostly steal cosmetics and men steal electronics. What do those items say about the reasons we shoplift?
To me, it’s about people shoplifting to transform themselves, to try and make themselves into some idealized version. We’re trying to fashion ourselves into these Mad Men stereotypes. So women are shoplifting cosmetics to make themselves beautiful and men are shoplifting tough He-Man type things.
You discuss several remedies for the crime: shame, rehab and psychoanalysis among them. Can shoplifting ever be stopped? And if so, what’s the best method?
As long as there are stores, there will be shoplifting. A lot of the anti-shoplifting devices that stores use have been proven to not work, or shoplifters find a way to get around them. Shame works for teenagers, but with Twitter and everything I don’t know whether shame will continue to have any effect on people. The one thing that works for stores is paying the people who work in them more. When people who work in retail are more invested, they tend to be more alert and concerned with the integrity of the business. They’re more active in trying to stop people from stealing.
MORE: The Rise in Retail Theft