The Art of Shoplifting: Life Among The Boosters

Shoplifters are some of my favorite criminals. Various times over the years I’ve gone with the Arlington police to pick them up in the big Pentagon City department stores. These are a favorite destination for shoplifters from Washington and PG County. The security forces catch them, but the cops have to take them away.

Lots of them aren’t real sophisticated. They wear baggy clothes, don’t look at all as if they belonged in Nordstrom’s, and end up being watched on a lot of screens in the security room. There was an old black guy in a wheel chair who, miraculously cured for a moment, put a VCR in its box on his chair seat, sat on it, and covered his lap with a rug. It was a good idea, but didn’t work. There was the scruffy white guy who, caught lifting cigarettes, grabbed a can of Mace from a counter and began spraying people to cover his flight.

Most shoplifters seem to regard getting caught as just a cost of doing business. Lots have long records, have been banned in several stores, and travel the metro area by subway in search of places where they won’t be recognized.

The most interesting case I know of I didn’t see myself. A friend of mine in Chicago was doing undercover narco work some years back. There was a black guy who was a major dealer. (The drug industry is an instance of racial cooperation: Brown people grow drugs, black people sell them, and white people buy them.) Anyway, my friend was following the guy’s wife for reasons related to the drug dealing.

It turned out that she had a lot of friends, black and white. It turned out that she liked to shop. After following her into several department stores, my buddy realized that she was the brains behind a really clever shoplifting scheme.

She would go into the store with several downscale and suspicious-looking black women. These would proceed to look like shoplifters. They hung around counters of small expensive goods. They brushed up against things. They picked up pricey merchandise, walked around with it, put it down somewhere else. They looked around them slyly to see whether they were being watched.

The store’s security people were onto them in a heartbeat and watched them like hawks. I mean, these women had all the hallmarks of shoplifters. A blind man would have noticed.

Meanwhile a respectable-looking young white woman, part of the gang, walked around other parts of the store. She was wearing what my friend describes as looking like a square-dancing skirt — lots of flair. Under it she had, guess what, booster bags. Lots of them. While the security people were following around the pseudo-boosters, who of course didn’t steal anything at all, she stole practically everything in the store and left.

It worked like a charm. My friend went to the security office and explained what was going on, so the gang got busted — but it wasn’t because the store caught on to them. They weren’t stealing cheap stuff, either.

Other scams abound. As I guess everyone knows, a standard technique is to put on clothes in the dressing rooms and then walk out wearing them. It’s also a fairly good way to get caught.

An improvement is to buy an expensive shirt, say, and get a receipt. You take it out of the store and put it in your car or, much smarter, in a friend’s car. You go back in, put on an identical shirt in the dressing room, and walk out of the store. If you don’t get caught, you put it in the car, and go back for another.

If you do get caught, you whip out the receipt, act indignant, and threaten to sue. If you are, say, Latino, you complain of racial discrimination and say you’re going to call the media. The store will back down instantly, even if the security suspect you of working the receipt scam.

Finally, there were the college students hired by a store to re-price several aisles of goods. They simply stole large numbers of price tags and gave them to friends, who put them on more expensive goods and bought them. They got caught by pushing too hard — putting a seven-dollar tag on a power drill. I haven’t seen a careful study, but people in stores have told me that middle-class white kids from good families often see nothing wrong with stealing from employers these days.

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