For some shoplifters, stealing from a retailer is a one-time thing—a mistake made due to peer pressure, stress, or other situational factors. For others, shoplifting has become a regular habit that provides feelings of power, pride, and community.
Individuals who fit into the latter category recently gained attention after an online shoplifting community was “outed” on the popular blogging platform Tumblr. While the criminal activity of the group is not commendable, their blogs and online interactions provide some insight into the mindsets of serial shoplifters, which may be useful in determining the proper course of treatment and counseling (rather than just fines and jail time) for those charged with shoplifting.
Shoplifters Motivate One Another through Online Community
The trend of shoplifters bragging about their “hauls” online isn’t a new phenomenon; archived posts on Tumblr suggest that the recently publicized shoplifting community has been active for at least two years. Its members hail from all over the world and found each other by using hashtags such as #lifting and #five finger discount. Before another Tumblr user brought the community widespread attention, the group would share tips on how to shoplift, name stores that were easy to steal from, and post pictures of their loot. Some also bragged by adding up the price tags of the stolen items and posting the total dollar amount they’d taken in one “haul.”
Many of these bloggers seem to view shoplifting as an intrinsic part of their subculture rather than an actual crime. By finding others who engage in the same illegal activity, they have been able to justify their own actions and have been encouraged to continue shoplifting. The tight knit community illustrates how peer pressure—or the desire to be part of a group—can provide significant motivation for shoplifting, especially for teenage girls or young women (as most of the online group members seem to be). Again, this doesn’t justify stealing, but it does shed light on why many young people choose to shoplift.
Complex Reasons for Shoplifting
While peer pressure may be part of the reason many people shoplift, it’s certainly not the only factor at play. When Tumblr user We Unhallowed first published a list of shoplifting blogs, she wrote, “I’ve heard our and their generations called ‘entitled,’ but it’s articulated really well here when you read their text posts about how they steal because they ‘deserve nice things’.” The rhetoric in many of those text posts does suggest a sense of entitlement, but some of the members of the shoplifting group took offense to this generalization and argued that they had much more complex reasons for stealing.
One blogger who goes by the name Stealer Moon told the online magazine Dazed that most of the community members aren’t as privileged as everyone assumes. She said that of the 100 or so active members, only about 10 were white. She herself is a Hispanic art-school student and says that many members are “young adults [who] have jobs and work hard but still don’t make ends meet.” For them, shoplifting is a means of accessing things they can’t afford in spite of their hard work.
For other community members, shoplifting provides a thrill and a sense of power, occasionally tempered by anxiety and fear. One blogger wrote, “It’s really hard to wrap my head around the fact that I’ve gotten away with so much in the past few days. I feel extremely powerful, but at the same time, I feel like I’m going to be caught any second.”
Many members of the shoplifting community have deleted their blogs for fear of getting caught now that they’re getting so much attention. Others, however, are sticking with the community, having decided that being part of the group outweighs the risks.
Handling Serial Shoplifting in Our Justice System
The members of Tumblr’s shoplifting community have stolen hundreds or even thousands of dollars’ worth of merchandise and could face serious penalties if caught. In Colorado, for example, stealing between $500-$1,000 worth of merchandise is a class 1 misdemeanor with a potential sentence of up to 18 months in jail and up to $5,000 in fines, while stealing over $1,000 is a class 4 felony that could result in up to 6 years in prison and up to $500,000 in fines.
While it was wrong of these bloggers to steal (and promote shoplifting tips & tricks online), this type of punishment seems disproportionate to the crime and ultimately unproductive. Before imposing tougher theft laws, we need to acknowledge that shoplifting is a crime with complex motivations, and the best response may be enrolling shoplifters in counseling and rehabilitation programs to help them refrain from criminal behavior and accept responsibility for their actions.
About the Author:
Kimberly Diego is a criminal defense attorney in Denver practicing at The Law Office of Kimberly Diego. She obtained her undergraduate degree from Georgetown University and her law degree at the University of Colorado. She was named one of Super Lawyers’ “Rising Stars of 2012” and “Top 100 Trial Lawyers in Colorado” for 2012 and 2013 by The National Trial Lawyers. Both honors are limited to a small percentage of practicing attorneys in each state. She has also been recognized for her work in domestic violence cases.