It starts simple. A candy bar here. A pack of gum there. Maybe a couple of bucks from a neighbor’s desk drawer. Before you know it, you can’t stop.
Or you don’t want to.
At least, that’s how it goes according to the users on r/shoplifting, reddit’s unofficial home base for fans of the five-finger discount.
I have no idea how or when I stumbled into this bizarre community. I’m sure it happened the same way anything does on the Internet. Click a link here, read an interesting nugget, click something new, rinse, repeat, and suddenly you’ve spent two hours reading about some obscure oddity. In this case, the best way to lift an expensive iPhone case from the local Walmart.
(Answer: go to the tool section, grab a pair of scissors, walk to Electronics, cut the plastic that secures the phone case to the rack, go to the bathroom, remove other security measures, discard the evidence, put your own phone in the case, walk out.)
Nearly 1,500 people subscribe to the shoplifting subreddit. Some of them lurkers, like me, but many of them incredibly active and forthcoming.
Some of the threads here exist simply for users to brag, like: “What’s the largest thing that you’ve ever shoplifted?”
Inside, the top answer: “A king size bed frame, headboard, and two night stands.” Another user writes about making off with a $50 bottle of Jack Daniels.
Other threads curate tips and advice, like “How to get past alarms?”.
Answer: “Just keep walking normally, don’t stop or run or draw attention to yourself.”
Reddit has a history of hosting controversial communities like this one, notably r/jailbait (pictures of young girls), r/niggers (racism), and r/creepshots (candid photos of attractive women). These are all closed now. However, a few others, like r/mensrights, are open for business and continue to draw heaps of criticism.
But we’re all essentially numb to this kind of hate and lechery by now, aren’t we? Anyone who’s ever read a comment thread on the Internet lost that innocence a long time ago.
The stuff on /r/shoplifting is different. It isn’t hateful or obnoxious or slimy. It’s illegal. Casually so. Brazenly so.
This kind of stuff was never meant to be out in the open.
And I can’t stop reading.
I’ve never stolen anything in my life.
Actually, that’s not true. That’s just one of those things people say without thinking.
Because everyone defaults to seeing themselves as a good person.
It’s not until you really start digging that you start to wonder.
Once, when I was a kid, I went into a Ritz Camera store to have some film developed, when people still did that sort of thing. Waiting there, I ogled the fancy cameras behind the glass, wondering how long it might take me to save up for one.
On my way out, I grabbed what I thought was a Nikon catalogue, and tucked it under my arm. When I got home, I realized it was much heftier than I originally thought, full of gorgeous photography seamlessly integrated with ads for Nikon products. More a magazine than anything else.
On the back, in tiny print in the corner, $24.95.
I remember panicking. Wondering if there was some way for me to take the thing back. Peering out my window for red and blue lights. Waiting for the police to come and take me away.
They never did.
Okay, so it was an accident. But it wasn’t the last time I took something.
In 8th grade, we’d steal sodas off of six packs from the high-end grocer next to our school. Everyone did it. I was one of the last to try it. Too afraid, really. I wasn’t the kind of kid who got in that kind of trouble.
But it was so easy, everyone told me. Just walk in. Act cool. Wait until the aisle’s clear. Pop a can out of the plastic. Walk out. Cool. Like you got it from a vending machine.
Don’t think. Just do it.
And I did. Many times.
Once, at an old job, a paycheck landed on my desk. Nearly double the amount it should have been. A mistake, surely.
I never said a word. I knew I should, but I didn’t.
But that was then. When I was young and my moral code hadn’t fully matured. Before I had a daughter who made me stop and really think about the kind of person I want to be.
But it’s funny. To this day, whenever I go to Whole Foods, I leave with a handful of those green rubber bands they use to wrap salad containers. They keep them in a small Tupperware container by the register and I sneak a few while the cashier is busy bagging my groceries.
Maybe they’re complimentary, anyway. I’ve never bothered to ask.
I just take them.
Consider some numbers.
1 in 11 people has shoplifted, according to the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention. That means we all know at least a few.
And plenty of evidence supports this theory; that shoplifters are everywhere.
Google AdWords tells us that the term “shoplifting tips” has 1900 searches a month.
“Shoplifting laws”, (AKA, what happens if I get caught)? 1600
Even something as specific and intent-oriented as “best places to shoplift” has over 100 unique searches per month, with a noticeable and tragic spike around the holidays.
The people who take their quests out into the open on the World Wide Web are nothing if not bold. To them, though, it might as well be just another innocuous hobby. Ask the users of r/shoplifting why they participate, and you get:
“I came online because I was looking for some ideas on getting an item I’ve wanted for a while. I also wanted to share the tips that I had for the people.”
“I’m here to learn tips and tricks. Also for reading stories and offering advice to others.”
Those are the kinds of answers you’d expect to see on a video game forum. Or a recipe exchange.
But ask them why they steal, or how they got started, and you start to really get somewhere.
First, there’s kleptomania. Barbara Staib of the National Association For Shoplifting Prevention in the US says that, when it comes to depression, some people might turn to alcohol or binge eating, but others turn to shoplifting to find some “solace”. About 6 in 1000 people suffer from kleptomania in the United States and the disorder accounts for about 5% of all shoplifting.
There’s the rush. Or the peer pressure. Or the challenge. Or the desire to just feel something, anything. One user wrote, “I did it because I’m poor, average, forgettable, and wanted to “win” just a little bit.”
There’s also need. One user on r/shoplifting wrote, “I’m in circumstances where anyone with half a heart would understand that I have to do something. I choose this over confrontational crime or indiscriminate fraud and try to observe my own set of ethics while doing it.” And another, “I first stole medication. I’d just lost my job and couldn’t afford treatment for bronchitis… so I stole some very expensive cough suppressants for six weeks until I was better.”
And then there’s anarchy. Shoplifters as soldiers in the battle against big box behemoths. Stealing, at least partially, to stick it to the man.
But one redditor called out the others when I asked.
“Some retard anarchists/Marxists claim they steal to stick it to the big corporations who are oppressing everyone through capitalistic means. That’s bullshit. At the end of the day we all just like free stuff, but we also get a nice buzz from it too.”
Slice it any way you want.
For some people, getting something for nothing is just too good to pass up.
I think what’s mesmerizing is that you can start to see yourself in these people, in their stories, the more you read.
It’d be a lot more comforting if we could paint a consistent persona of a shoplifter. Of any kind of criminal, really. Some kind of stereotype or framework to fit a logical narrative; like “boys between 14–18, from broken homes, in neighborhoods surrounded by crime.” Or even if we could paint theft as some kind of gateway drug, symptomatic of someone likely to bring harm to innocent people
But it’s not that simple. R/shoplifting, at least, welcomes middle class suburban women. International university students. Kids. Adults. Maybe even a few anonymous celebrities. Many of whom boast a strong code of ethics: No mom-and-pop shops. No violence. And so on.
One person wrote, “(Other than shoplifting) I think I’m a pretty ethical person. I’ve never cheated on exams, I’ve found wallets in them with money that I return.”
These people aren’t simply societal misfits. In a lot of ways, they’re more like us than we’d be comfortable admitting.
But let’s. Let’s admit it.
I’m far from poor, but I’ve over drafted my account. Been late on bills. Had to make tough financial decisions. Wouldn’t life be easier if, instead of paying for that $117 grocery haul, I just walked out with it?
I’m blessed with a loving family and a great career, but I’ve yearned for excitement. Been bored and numb. Wanted a rush of adrenaline. How thrilling could it be, infiltrating an establishment like some Hollywood antihero, playing cat and mouse with security, sneaking out with a shiny reward?
The reason I don’t do it isn’t because of some unwavering sense of justice. It’s because I have too much to lose. Because I’m fortunate enough to say that living my life the right way has brought me everything I need, and more.
For some people, it hasn’t.
So maybe my fascination with reading their stories is more than just your typical Internet detour. Maybe it’s a reminder of how good I have it. A reminder that the line between right and wrong is razor thin, with a treacherous downward slope.
And maybe, it’s just liberating to let my mind wander a bit, imagining what it’d be like to let go and slide down into the darkness.
Only, of course, with the comfort of knowing I’ll never actually have to.
If you like what you just read, please hit the green ‘Recommend’ button below so that others might stumble upon this story.
Follow Evan on Twitter here.