How to deal with a shoplifting BFF.
What happens when your new friend can’t stop stealing?
imet Jason* at a strange time in my life. I was in my late 20s, between jobs and questioning everything from my career goals to my sagging love life. I turned to silk scarves and red lipsticks; my purchases weren’t extravagant, but they were powerful little luxuries that distracted me from my confusing state of limbo. While shopping helped, the spark of a newfound friendship helped even more.
On the first day of flight-attendant training for an ill-fated airline, Jason and I bonded over a mutual love of travel, sushi and, most happily, fashion. We made plans for a retail odyssey, scouring stores in consumer bliss. For all our similar interests, however, there was a defining difference that I didn’t see coming: I paid for all my purchases, whereas he didn’t—and hadn’t for years.
Jason’s shoplifting confession, delivered weeks after we met, was so smooth that I didn’t even balk. I barely squeaked. He didn’t look like a shoplifter (read “destitute”) to me. In fact, he used his sense of style to charm his way to a perfectly curated closet.
I was shocked, fascinated even, by his blithe attitude and the volume of his spoils. He rattled off the luxury department stores and retailers that sponsored his expensively understated wardrobe. He had stolen $1,400 worth of merchandise, from socks to shirts, from one store. (How could a person steal so much and not get caught? Looking good helps.) h
He’s not alone, as it turns out. It’s estimated that one in 11 people shoplift in the United States. Stupid kids, right? Wrong: A whopping 75 percent of shoplifters are adults. It’s estimated that over $3.6 billion worth of merch goes missing each year in Canada alone. “We all do it,” Jason told me.
With near joy, he detailed his most brazen heists and inevitable close calls. “I hope you won’t judge me,” he said quietly. But, of course, I did.
In a department store, I returned to find Jason “mid-purchase,” slipping a floral-print cosmetics bag into his open coat. “You aren’t going to steal that, are you?” I asked, alarmed. Giving me a look loaded with enough contempt to down an elephant, he slowly returned the bag to the glass table. We left the store not speaking.
I needed to know why putting himself at risk was worth the price of socks or a cashmere sweater. When I asked, he replied simply, “Because I can’t afford the clothes.” When I asked again later, he said, “Because I can’t stop.” And later still: “I do it because my parents do it. Where do you think I learned it from?” Had his parents taught him to steal? Maybe. But I never had proof. Here’s the thing: Thievery and deceit go hand in hand. Jason stole a lot—and he lied more. I didn’t know what to believe.
Similarly, Mika*, 22, “boosts” electronics two to five times a week. Her biggest heist was worth $2,500. “Taking something from a store gives me an exhilarating rush,” says Mika, who grew up in a “very stereotypical, ideal, middle-class family.” Her parents are small-business owners. “I’m just the black sheep,” she says with a laugh. Yet Mika is no wild child. When she answers the ad I posted looking for people willing to discuss shoplifting, her emails read like polite job queries. And, from start to finish, she treats our exchanges with professionalism, arriving on time for our first meeting in a Starbucks and answering my emails with unfailing promptness. I find myself asking why this intelligent, well-adjusted girl from a “normal” background is risking a criminal record and the grave disappointment of her family.
Unravelling the reasons for shoplifting is like falling into a psychological and emotional rabbit hole. Expert opinions differ even on how to categorize the act itself. Agnes Wainman, a registered
Forget crusty getaway cars and shady digs on the wrong side of the tracks: Modern thievery demands glamour to be interesting.
clinical psychologist practising in London, Ont., explains that shoplifting can have myriad causes. “It may be an emotional release for individuals or it may be a pattern of behaviour that brings a person shame and guilt, which can distract from other painful emotions.” Or, she reminds me, it can simply be a way to get something you want for free.
Is shoplifting a form of addiction? The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry has published articles that draw strong connections between shoplifters’ behaviour and that of alcoholics. Mika’s experience echoes this research. “Shoplifting is just as much an addiction to me as drugs are to other people; it gives the same kind of rush,” she explains. After five years, the intensity of the “rush” remains unchanged: “You get that instant satisfaction of getting what you want.”
John*, a stylish man in his early 30s who works in the Toronto arts scene, doesn’t feel guilty about his 20-year shoplifting habit. (Books are his favourite.) “I steal things that won’t be missed, just like everyone else,” he tells me, rationalizing that he only targets larger corporations. But there is no getting away from the simple fact that, regardless of Robin Hood-esque justifications, he’s a middle-class person who is stealing to fulfill a desire, not a need. “Most people who shoplift can afford to buy the things they take,” says John.
But what about getting caught? Mika vividly describes the only time she was apprehended. (It was in a Chapters, but she was released without charge by a sympathetic police officer.) “The legal consequences had really sunk in at that point, so I decided ‘I can’t do this anymore,’” she explains. It didn’t take long for the itch to return, though. While she says that she has no intention of ever quitting again, she acknowledges that her “good luck” might soon run out. “It’s not going to last forever,” she says with a smile.
Forget crusty getaway cars and shady digs on the wrong side of the tracks: Modern thievery demands glamour to be interesting. Take the gang of Hollywood-bred colts who, in 2008 h
“Other people don’t have the nerve to be able to go into a store with confidence or without their conscience holding them back.”
and 2009, famously robbed socialite Paris Hilton and a roster of other celebrities, including Orlando Bloom, making off with jewellery, clothes and other valuables. They achieved a strange celebrity of their own with Sofia Coppola’s movie The Bling Ring, which is based on their capers. What kind of car did Rachel Lee, the ringleader behind the thefts, drive? An Audi A4. Whatever her motives for leading the spree, an anemic bank balance wasn’t one of them.
Then there’s the practically historic 2001 case of assuredly wealthy actress Winona Ryder, who shoplifted from Saks Fifth Avenue, which deflated her career but later landed her a W magazine cover. Closer to home, there is the baffling episode of former MP Svend Robinson, who at the time of his 2004 shoplifting arrest was in the prime of his political run as a member of the New Democratic Party. His career was defined by the random theft of a $64,000 ring from a plush jewellery boutique. (He was later diagnosed as having bipolar disorder, but he wasn’t broke.) And my friend Jason? He lived in a leafy middle-class suburb. He didn’t need another pair of expensive jeans. My hunch is that what he craved, and maybe what we all crave, is power. While everyone else was battling with credit, Jason was achieving a moneyed lifestyle without spending a cent. He felt he was above money.
“The goal is not always to obtain the stolen goods,” explains Wainman. “Rather, it’s the experience of stealing it.” Mika agrees that the charge she gets from stealing is what keeps her going back. “Other people don’t have the nerve to be able to go into a store with confidence or without their conscience holding them back,” she says. “It gives me a sense of confidence.” She pauses. “Sometimes you just do it because you know you can, even though you don’t need the item or you don’t even like it.”
I didn’t know if Jason could stop stealing, but I wanted to save our friendship. I carefully outlined ground rules by asking him not to shoplift in my presence; I didn’t want his choices to become mine. Jason promised he would never put me in a risky situation: Didn’t I know that our relationship was more important than anything else? But pitted against addiction, ingrained habits and conflicting values, friendship suffers. I deeply resented the way he rolled his eyes whenever I bought something. And he saw me as an inconvenience, preventing him from “shopping” the way he wanted.
When I ask Mika if she finds it difficult to build real friendships, she is initially composed. “It can be difficult at times,” she says. “A friend of mine—who is more of an acquaintance now—found out that I was doing it and she wasn’t happy about it. She kind of pretends that she doesn’t know about it....” Suddenly flustered, she continues: “I don’t know...I don’t know.... It’s hard to answer that question. Sorry, could you repeat the question?” Circling back, I ask her point-blank if she regrets the fact that her friend distanced herself. Poised once again, she says, “I don’t really feel regret.” Mika can’t seem to help herself from adding, “At the same time, I know she’s involved in something that she shouldn’t necessarily be proud of either.”
The fate of my friendship with Jason was sealed one afternoon during a weekend away in Chicago. As we walked out of an expensive shabby-chic store, the alarm squealed. The sales associate waved us out, not suspecting that among the group of well-dressed shoppers was a well-dressed thief. Outside, Jason grabbed my elbow. “Look what I got,” he said, his Cheshirecat smile gleaming in the sunlight as he pulled a small plastic ring covered with rhinestones out of his pocket. “Isn’t this just great?” he said, laughing and rolling it in his palm. I felt sick. “Why the hell did you do that?” I barked. All his promises had been traded for the thrill of swiping a piece of costume jewellery that weighed less than a penny and probably cost as much to make. Our friendship was over.
Years later, I still think about Jason. He had been funny, kind, charming and generous. But, in the end, he had acted more like a thief than a friend. He stole my trust, put me in danger and lied to me. And with friends like those—well, you know how that one goes. n