Shoplifting in Chicago

How police are dealing with the rise of flash shoplifting mobs and organized shoplifting.

  • Photograph: Michael Jarecki

    Jerry Biggs, the director of Walgreens� organized retail crime division, with cases of confiscated over-the-counter drugs kept in a secret warehouse

  • Photograph: Michael Jarecki

    Walgreens' Jerry Biggs with a "booster bag" lined with duct tape and aluminum foil used to hide items that contain security sensors

  • Photograph: Michael Jarecki

    A monitor at an undisclosed Walgreens warehouse displays security camera footage of thieves filling a garbage can full of items at a Walgreens store.

  • Photograph: Michael Jarecki

    Items confiscated from Vijay and Ajay Patel, brothers charged with operating a multimillion-dollar fencing operation, line the shelves at the secret Walgreens warehouse

Chloe walks into Victoria’s Secret with confidence. While she’s been to this chain’s location on North Avenue only once before, she acts as if it’s her regular hangout spot. “Hi, yeah, I’m back again,” she says to a twentysomething salesperson. “I know I said the other day that I wasn’t sure about those Cheeky Panties, but I’ve got to see them again.”

The staffer hesitates, then nods, even though she has never laid eyes on Chloe before. “Okay, I’m browsing for a minute, then I’m coming back to you,” Chloe says in a sing-song voice as she walks away, checking out the displays of lacy bras.

This isn’t a real shopping trip for Chloe. Instead, she has agreed to show me how she might shop a store—shop being her word for shoplift.

Chloe (her name and some identifying details have been changed) has been shoplifting for a dozen years, since she was in her twenties. She’s not stealing to get by: She holds a $53,000-a-year marketing/public relations job in the near north suburbs. But she’s good at shoplifting.

If this were a real outing for Chloe, not just a walk-around with me, she would buy something small—she thinks this deflects attention from her as a possible shoplifter—and then browse. She might ask a question about Bombshell, one of the store’s perfume lines. “‘Does this have vanilla notes?’ Something that they probably won’t know,” she says. Her goal is to move the staff’s perception of her from possible buyer to time-waster, so they’ll stop paying attention to her.

This isn’t hard to do. Chloe is fairly unremarkable-looking: medium build, average clothes. But underneath her sweater she wears a slightly oversize bra by Chantelle or La Perla. She’s opened up its back lining and put in a layer of duct tape, then resewn the lining back in place. The result: Anything that gets stuffed into her bra can make it past the sensors and out of the store. Even if the sensors go off, she has nothing in her pockets or bag. She says it’s a “shame to have to [doctor] such nice bras,” which retail for $100 to $230 each. Of course, she didn’t pay for them anyway.

If today had been a boosting day, Chloe says she would have been able to lift a handful of bikinis, some camisoles and a few bras, although she won’t say exactly how.

“I don’t even want all those things, but I can get them,” she says, and that seems to be the point. She can, so she does. Her shoplifting has become so proficient that she now sells items she has boosted. At first she used eBay, but she got paranoid. “I think they’re watching eBay,” she says, referring to law enforcement. Now she sells her extra boost at dollar stores or little tucked-away storefronts—consignment stores sometimes, but she has to be wary of those that keep records. “They will take anything: lingerie, clothes, knickknacks, cosmetics. Oh, Crème de la Mer cream”—the French face cream costs $150 per ounce. “They love that.”

Suddenly, the lesson is over. “I’ve already told you too much,” she says, pulling out a little bottle of Purell hand sanitizer and dolloping some on her hands. This is her post-shoplifting ritual.

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