Framing The Problem of Theft: A Different Perspective

The recent 2008 Jack Hayes International Survey and the 2008 University of Florida’s National Retail Security Survey both show an increase in shoplifting and employee theft over the previous year. The NRSS highlights the top loss prevention strategies to combat these dual scourges (from tagging and greeters to background checks and honesty testing) and the Jack Hayes Survey suggests some reasons for their increase (including poor economy, continued spikes in organized crime, easy fencing over the Internet, and a growing dishonesty in our culture). All of this information is valuable as is adequate legal consequences for those who steal—though only a small percentage are caught, fewer prosecuted, fewer incarcerated, and even fewer are ultimately deterred from re-offending.

I won’t pretend to have all the answers on how to reduce theft but I will share that I may have a slightly different perspective. You see, I used to be a shoplifter and I used to steal from work. Granted, this was nearly 20 years ago when I was between the ages of 15-25. I shoplifted and stole from work not for profit or poverty but because I was depressed and angry and lost. The details aren’t important but I stumbled into stealing and got hooked, addicted to the thrill and the need to numb my pain. It took two shoplifting arrests to get my attention but it wasn’t until I entered professional counseling in 1990 that I began to deal with my “issues.” In 1992 I founded C.A.S.A. (Cleptomaniacs And Shoplifters Anonymous)—a self-help group in the Detroit area which now has chapters online and across the U.S. My stealing was a terrible cry for help.

I have also been a criminal defense attorney since 1992 and a certified social worker and addictions therapist since 1997. I have worked with hundreds of clients—of all backgrounds—who steal. The 2008 Jack Hays International Survey reported that shoplifting increase 7.65% over 2007 while employee theft increased 3.01% over the same period. While plain thieves (and professional thieves) certainly exist, my research and professional experience leads me to believe that most people steal when they feel upset, anxious, aggrieved, or trapped; and in today’s economy and culture of fraud, it’s no wonder stealing is on the rise.

Understanding why people steal is vital to creating effective loss prevention strategies. It’s the equivalent of going to war or battle with both military might and an eye toward “winning the hearts and minds” of the people. No approach will deter all shoplifters or employees from stealing. We do know, however, that stores with greeters, good customer service, and discounts/freebies/and loyalty rewards programs see reduced theft; likewise, companies that treat and pay their employees well, offer recognition and praise, and focus on increasing morale report less shrink, too.

On the flip side, once shoplifters are apprehended or employees who steal are discovered, we need to think progressively about how to reduce recidivism which, most statistics show, is fairly high. In my opinion, we need more support groups, more court-ordered educational programs, and more skilled therapists to help “correct” theft behavior in the same way we have help for alcoholics, drug addicts and gamblers. There is also research which shows a growing trend of dishonesty (cheating, lying, and stealing) among our youth. Prevention starts at home with solid values and quality time and communication with our kids and extends to our schools and beyond. One size doesn’t fit all: each person who steals may need therapeutic interventions as well as legal consequences. While it may not be the role of retailers or loss prevention to institute such interventions, recognition of their importance is a helpful step.

Terrence Daryl Shulman, JD,LMSW,ACSW,CAAC,CPC is a Detroit area therapist, attorney, author, and consultant. He is the Founder and Director of The Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft and Spending and is the founder of C.A.S.A. (Cleptomaniacs And Shoplifters Anonymous) groups in Michigan and online. He is the author of “Something for Nothing: Shoplifting Addiction and Recovery,” “Biting The Hand That Feeds: The Employee Theft Epidemic… New Perspectives, New Solutions” and “Bought Out and $pent! Recovery from Compulsive $hopping and $pending.” He organized and presented at The First International Conference on Theft Addictions and Disorders in 2005 and The Second International Conference on Compulsive Theft & Spending in 2008. He has appeared as a guest expert on Oprah, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, The Today Show, The Early Show, and Good Morning America—among others. He can be reached at or 248-358-8508. His lead website is Mr. Shulman offers counseling and consulting in person and by phone.  $

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