Confessions of a shoplifter
Getting arrested and spending time in prison doesn’t deter her, and the money she makes reselling her loot is more than enough reward
She has been to jail on countless occasions. But after 10 years, she is still not shaken by the long arm of the law. Queen* (34) from Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape makes a living from shoplifting. She’s prepared to take the risk for the quick cash she makes from reselling the stolen goods. She has lost count of how many times she has been in prison, but she won’t stop what she calls her daily job because her family depends on her.
“I have never had a real job before. My family has no choice but to accept what I do because it helps them. Anyway, I already have a criminal record, so what is the point of looking for a job?”
Queen dropped out of nursing studies after one year because her mother could not afford the fees. This left her devastated and she turned to stealing. She fell pregnant at the age of 20.
This week, she was at her local magistrates’ court appearing for yet another case of theft – a routine part of a shoplifter’s life.
The longest sentence she has served is 18 months, which was six years ago.
Not surprisingly though, attending court cases and being arrested do not deter her any more.
“I have been in and out of prison and appeared for many cases, but life goes on. With the money I make I take care of my son and extended family,” she says with a sense of pride.
She is able to pay rent, buy groceries and things her 14year-old boy needs for school.
“I make good money from it and I am used to it.”
She remembers her first brush with the law.
“The first time I was caught and arrested at a clothing retail store was so embarrassing, because everyone looked at me. They saw the items found in my bag and under my clothes.
“I wanted to die and I thought I would never do it again.” The thought of prison terrified her, but the initial experience was not as harsh as she thought it would be. She only missed her son, who was still a toddler at the time.
“My first imprisonment wasn’t bad. I was able to supplement the cell bosses with cigarettes and anything else they needed.”
She got help from other, more experienced, shoplifters who knew the ups and downs of prison life.
Queen is reluctant to reveal how they bypass security guards and CCTV cameras in shops.
She says the key to a successful shoplifting spree is working in a team and moving from one shopping centre to the next.
“We work in groups with both men and women. Sometimes we act like couples. The reason we hop from one shop to another is to avoid taking many things from one shop. It’s much easier to be caught with small items than with a load.”
They steal anything from groceries, school shoes, baby formula and pricy branded clothing to expensive bottles of whisky.
“It all depends on the demand from people in the township. We sell the stolen goods at 50% discount, for cash. We also sell on credit and collect the money later.”
After a successful day of thieving, they divide the takings equally and pay their driver, who does not take part in the stealing and is not part of the ring, a transportation fee.
In one go she can earn up to R3 000 from credit sales alone.
“But some people can spend the whole month working for three grand. Never!”
Mzwandile Booysen, a security guard with experience working in shops, says theft from stores is widespread. The culprits range in age from teenagers to adults in their forties.
“Shoplifters try at all costs to build a relationship with a retail security guard. They will offer you money for cold drink or airtime.” This is because they want an easy pass, in case they get caught stealing.
They come in pairs. One keeps an eye on the security guard. Or they pretend to be buying something and, once the guard moves away, they slip something into their clothing.
“They steal not knowing that surveillance cameras are active.”
Women go as far as putting items in their underwear or between their thighs. Sometimes they come in wearing bulky jackets to make it easier to hide their loot.
Another trick is to enter the store with a big bag. Thieves like to snatch small items with high monetary value.
“Shoplifting is a problem in this country,” he says.