Shoplifting in Chicago

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

Who is doing this heavy lifting? “I’ve met various types of shoplifters,” says Andrew Weisberg, a Chicago criminal defense attorney. “They can be people who have plenty of money and they could easily buy whatever they’re stealing, but for some reason they don’t want to do that. They want to steal it.” Weisberg has defended doctors, accountants, high-level managers and a nurse who fit this category. “For some people, stealing is compulsive,” he says. “They can’t help it.” These lifters, Weisberg says, usually have other issues, like depression, anxiety or even bipolar disorder, that lead to the crime. There are juveniles who shoplift as a rite of passage. “And there are a few people who are stealing because they need the food or the baby formula,” Weisberg adds. “But those people are a very small minority of the cases I’ve handled.”

Rachel Shteir, an associate professor at the Theatre School at DePaul University, spent seven years researching her 2011 book The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting (Penguin Press, $25.95). Shteir says there are no easy answers about who shoplifts or why they do it. “It’s long been considered a woman’s crime,” she says, “and followers of Freud linked it to repressed sexuality.” But Shteir, who interviewed hundreds of shoplifters for her book, breaks down the stereotypes this way: “There are both male and female compulsive stealers, who often are driven by depression [accomplishing the theft may boost their mood] or some lack of impulse control. There are drug addicts who steal to feed their habit and they just do it, every day or so, to get the money to buy the drugs or alcohol they need. There are adrenaline junkies who just get off on the thrill of doing it.”

The organized crews, who often go out with specific lists from fences—Gillette Mach3 razor blades, L’Oreal shampoo, Advil, batteries, alcohol, pregnancy tests—are in it for the profit, Shteir says. As for flash-mob theft, she says: “While it’s definitely shoplifting, flash mobs are more of a social-media event than anything else.”

The biggest problem with all kinds of shoplifting is that “it’s the elephant in the room,” Shteir says. “It’s right here and it’s very big. But no one wants to talk about it. Stores often don’t want the hassle of going to court. And lots of people just want to shrug it off as a victimless crime.”

“Our biggest frustration is that so many people are given a pass on shoplifting,” says Barbara Staib, director of communications at the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention. Many first-time shoplifters are either warned by the store or directed by courts into a brief class or program. (For example, a behavioral theft deterrent program is offered by Cook County and Rush Hospital for first-time offenders.)

Staib explains “shrinkage”—the amount of merchandise that routinely is missing from a store’s inventory. “Most retailers are happy with a 1.3 percentage [rate] of shrinkage,” Staib says. But law-enforcement officials could help retailers drive that rate lower. Right now, shoplifting cannot be charged as a felony unless the thief nabs more than $300 in goods. NASP wants the felony threshold lowered, so people stealing smaller amounts could be prosecuted.

“We’re dealing with a subset—10 percent of people in the U.S. who have shoplifted,” Staib says. “We pay higher prices because of this theft. Honest consumers pay the price for dishonest people.”