Con­fes­sions of a mid­dle-class shoplifter

The lure of lovely things drew a posh yummy mummy into a life of shame­less theft from shops, writes DIANA APPLEYARD

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE -

MOST women will be fa­mil­iar with the feel­ings that Melissa Mar­shall is ex­press­ing so elo­quently. Like most of us, she loves to shop. She ad­mits she gets a phys­i­cal high from the rit­ual of spy­ing a new dress, run­ning the fab­ric through her fin­gers, then declar­ing to her­self – heart a-flut­ter – that she sim­ply has to have it.

Ap­par­ently, this was what it was like with the “gor­geous, silky, al­most weight­less” turquoise shift dress she spied a lit­tle while ago in Lon­don’s Ox­ford Cir­cus branch of Karen Millen.

It had a price tag of £269.99 (R3 330), enough to in­duce breath­ing prob­lems in most of us, but no mat­ter. It was a must-have.

Where Melissa dif­fers from most of us is that her ac­qui­si­tion of this mag­i­cal scrap of fab­ric did not in­volve troop­ing to the check-out and ban­ish­ing thoughts of credit card state­ments from her brain.

It in­volved lit­tle more than ex­pert in­ves­ti­ga­tion and sleight of hand.

“I found a dress where the se­cu­rity tag had been re­moved – it must have been a re­turn – and so knew an alarm would not sound when I walked out with it,” she says.

“Then I took it. I just slipped it un­der my coat. What made it eas­ier, I sup­pose, was that I was eight months preg­nant, so had all th­ese vo­lu­mi­nous folds in my coat.”

A shame­ful ad­mis­sion – and a shock­ing one. Be­cause if you were to put 41-year-old Melissa in a line-up and ask some­one to pick out the shoplifter, chances are she would be the last per­son se­lected.

In her Whis­tles coat, Bo­den skirt and Rus­sell & Brom­ley boots, she looks achingly mid­dle-class.

Accessorise that out­fit with the buggy she pushes on most shop­ping ex­pe­di­tions – her lit­tle boy, Tom, is nine months old – and she is far from the tra­di­tional im­age of a shoplifter.

As she puts it: “Who would ex­pect a yummy mummy to be a thief ? I cer­tainly don’t look like the stereo­type.”

But per­haps Melissa – in­tel­li­gent, pro­fes­sional, groomed to within an inch of her life – is more typ­i­cal of shoplifters than any­one imag­ined.

This week a re­port by se­cu­rity ex­perts Check­point Sys­tems NCE re­vealed that lev­els of petty pil­fer­ing are much higher in the UK than in any other part of Europe. The coun­try is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a shoplift­ing epi­demic fu­elled by mid­dle-class women des­per­ate to main­tain their lifestyles in a re­ces­sion.

In the 12 months to June, cus­tomers stole £5 bil­lion of goods – a 20 per­cent in­crease in a year.

What is strik­ing is that many of the items stolen are firmly geared to­wards mid­dle-class, fe­male tastes: cos­met­ics, per­fume, face cream, cell­phones and fash­ion­able clothes, as well as cam­eras, iPods and lux­ury foods.

For Melissa, who works in ad­ver­tis­ing, high-end cos­met­ics are es­sen­tials rather than lux­u­ries, so when times are tough they are all too easy to slip into her pocket.

Not that her protes­ta­tions about fall­ing wages in the credit crunch – she blames the Karen Millen dress episode on be­ing on ma­ter­nity leave and hav­ing lit­tle spare cash – can be taken se­ri­ously. She is a sea­soned shoplifter with years of ex­pe­ri­ence.

“I’ve been ad­dicted to shoplift­ing since I was at uni­ver­sity. It’s a com­pul­sion,” she says. “The mo­ment I walk into a shop, I am looking for the se­cu­rity guards. I am check­ing out the CCTV cam­eras, as­sess­ing how many staff are on duty and how vig­i­lant they seem.

“You would not be­lieve how easy it is to steal, es­pe­cially if you look as smart and mid­dle-class as me.”

It is dif­fi­cult to stom­ach this talk of “ad­dic­tion” and “com­pul­sion” – with all its false sense of vic­tim­hood – when you dis­cover that shoplifters are cost­ing each Bri­tish house­hold £220 a year. And even though Melissa is not earn­ing what she once was, she is hardly on the bread­line.

She comes from a solid fam­ily, who are af­flu­ent with it. She was pri­vately ed­u­cated and there were plenty of hol­i­days. Her fa­ther is a secondary school prin­ci­pal, her mother a le­gal sec­re­tary.

“Looking from the out­side, I’m the epit­ome of re­spectabil­ity,” she says. “My par­ents would never speak to me again if they knew of this.”

She lives with her part­ner Michael, 43, an IT con­sul­tant, in a beau­ti­ful flat in south-west Lon­don.

The first thing she stole was a text­book. She was 19 and study­ing in Brighton. “I stood by the shelves in the uni­ver­sity book­shop and sud­denly the thought came to me. I didn’t have to pay for this heavy and ex­pen­sive text­book on Freud.

“The crazy thing is I had the money in my purse – I could eas­ily have paid for the book. But I was wear­ing a big coat and, for some un­known rea­son, it seemed cool and fun to slip it in­side the lin­ing. I could spend that money in­stead on go­ing out that night with my friends.

“The book shop owner was miles away and couldn’t see me, and there weren’t any CCTV cam­eras in the shop. My hands were trem­bling as I lifted the book. Then, as non­cha­lantly as I could, I walked out of the shop. I was filled with a great surge of ex­hil­a­ra­tion. I’d done it!”

She says it made her feel clever. “I know peo­ple will be a bit sur­prised but I didn’t feel guilty or em­bar­rassed – all I felt was thrilled at my own dar­ing and clev­er­ness. Even to­day, to me it isn’t steal­ing. Steal­ing is what crim­i­nals do. I am sim­ply do­ing a bit of shoplift­ing – just for fun.”

Af­ter uni­ver­sity, Melissa landed a dream job in ad­ver­tis­ing which

‘It’s a com­pul­sion. The mo­ment I walk into a shop I am looking for se­cu­rity guards, as­sess­ing staff. You wouldn’t be­lieve how easy it is to steal.’

even­tu­ally led to a six-fig­ure salary. But that did not stop her steal­ing.

Shoplift­ing be­came a way of life. “From that book, I went on to steal lit­tle things such as var­nish and lip­stick, but grad­u­ated to de­signer clothes and jew­ellery af­ter I moved to Lon­don. I must have stolen thou­sand of pounds worth of goods. I’ve never added it up.

“At one stage, I shoplifted ev­ery Satur­day and of­ten dur­ing the week at lunchtime as well. I got bolder and bolder, and learned more about how to cheat se­cu­rity mea­sures, such as store de­tec­tives, cam­eras and tags.

“I loved the fact I had this se­cret, un­con­ven­tional life. I was looking for ex­cite­ment. I be­gan test­ing se­cu­rity tags by tak­ing them close to the shop door – you’d be amazed how of­ten the alarms don’t go off be­cause they are faulty or switched off.

“Once I started steal­ing clothes, I re­alised that those that have been re­turned and have been hung on the rail by the chang­ing rooms no longer have se­cu­rity tags on them.

“I would take as many items as I was al­lowed into the chang­ing room. In­side, I would check for cam­eras and then slide the dress, skirt or top I wanted into my bag be­fore breezily re­turn­ing the oth­ers to the as­sis­tant. I’ve even walked straight out of a de­signer shop wear­ing a re­turned £800 de­signer coat. That was such a buzz. I never look about me, and I don’t walk quickly. I look like any other cus­tomer. I’ll of­ten buy lit­tle things as well as shoplift­ing larger ones in the same shop, so I am seen to ap­proach the till.”

Melissa never tar­gets small shops, which might sug­gest some scru­ples – un­til she ex­plains why. “In small shops, own­ers are more vig­i­lant or will miss the goods. In chain stores or de­signer shops, the as­sis­tants don’t give a damn and are usu­ally stand­ing about chat­ting. As long as you make sure there are no se­cu­rity tags, you’re home and dry.”

Well, not ex­actly. Melissa’s meth­ods are by no means as fool­proof as she thinks – she has been ar­rested twice.

The first time, when she was 21, she was spot­ted slip­ping a book un­der her coat in a branch of Water­stones. She was held in a cell for four hours, but wept so much that the po­lice be­lieved her protes­ta­tions that the in­ci­dent had been a one-off mis­take and let her off with a cau­tion. The sec­ond time was more se­ri­ous.

“I know this is aw­ful, but it was just af­ter the July 2005 bomb­ings on the Tube and buses in Lon­don. I pre­tended to the shop as­sis­tant and the po­lice that I’d been caught up in the bomb­ings and that I was so trau­ma­tised I didn’t know what I was do­ing when I took a cash­mere jumper from a shop on Bond Street. I’ll say any­thing to try to get away with shoplift­ing. They let me go be­cause I cried and made such a scene.”

For most of her life, Melissa’s shoplift­ing has been her guilty se­cret. But af­ter the birth of her son, she told her hus­band about her be­hav­iour. He was ap­palled.

She promised him she would never steal again, but ad­mits she isn’t sure about that.

“The fact is that I could be im­pris­oned if I am caught again. I keep say­ing to my­self that I am a mum now and have to think of Tom and his fu­ture. I have promised my hus­band that I have beaten it and it is just a shock­ing episode from my past, but I’m ly­ing. I’ve spent hours try­ing to work out why I steal, but I can’t ex­plain it. I sup­pose I like to be the cen­tre of at­ten­tion, but mostly I just like to have nice things.

“I’m ad­dicted to ac­quir­ing ma­te­rial pos­ses­sions – the more ex­pen­sive, the bet­ter. Even the thrill of be­ing with my son and see­ing him smile does not beat the buzz of shoplift­ing. Shoplift­ing is my drug. It’s the first thing I think about in the morn­ing and the last thing at night. Shoplift­ing chal­lenges me and takes ev­ery ounce of my cun­ning and skill.

“You would think that hav­ing been caught by the po­lice twice would be enough to stop me. Or that if I get caught again I might lose my ca­reer, my life with Michael, and pos­si­bly even Tom.

“But it isn’t. I know it’s an aw­ful ad­mis­sion and one that most peo­ple will find hard to un­der­stand. I hate life to be mun­dane. I crave ex­cite­ment and dan­ger.

“And then, of course, there’s all those lovely Christ­mas party dresses in vel­vet and silk in the shops.

“The long­ing to run home with those beau­ti­ful clothes I can no longer af­ford is just too much.”

If the credit crunch has played a part, it has been to fuel Melissa’s sense that she has a “right” to beau­ti­ful things.

“My work rates have been cut and I am on ma­ter­nity leave, so money is even tighter,” she says. “I think about steal­ing things I want all the time. I’m over­drawn and I hate it.”

Per­haps in­evitably, she is not the least sur­prised about news that the soar­ing lev­els of shoplift­ing are driven by mid­dle-class peo­ple caught in the re­ces­sion.

“I bet most of them are women,” she says. “We can’t do without our de­signer fix.”

Then she’s off again, sali­vat­ing about frip­peries while ad­mit­ting she has no room to store the things she shoplifts be­cause she al­ready has 40 pairs of de­signer shoes and two wardrobes full of stolen clothes.

“I know I should feel guilty when I look at all the fabrics and colours, with their de­signer la­bels. In­stead I think: ‘Clever me’.”

The prob­lem for Melissa is that one day a jury will un­doubt­edly draw a very dif­fer­ent con­clu­sion. – Daily Mail

Names have been changed.

RICH PICK­INGS: The shops of Ox­ford Cir­cus in Lon­don are hunt­ing grounds for com­pul­sive mid­dle-class shoplifters, whose ad­dic­tion could cost them their comfortable lives.

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