How to deal with a shoplift­ing BFF.

What hap­pens when your new friend can’t stop steal­ing?

ELLE (Canada) - - News - By Anna Mat­tiuzzo

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

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