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
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.