Talking to teens

Part I of II
Shoplifting is not as cute and glamorous as many teens thinks; in fact, it can be the fast track to a life of crime. Shoplifting for many teens is as common as listening to their favorite CDs, many of which are boot-legged copies.

Teen crime is growing at an alarming rate. Teenagers are responsible for more than 50% of all shoplifting cases in the United States. The favorite weekend pastime and pleasure for many teens is a shoplifting spree at the local mall.

“I first started stealing,” 16-year-old Monique of Chicago said, “when I was 12. I wanted a pair of Nikes and my mom said no because they were too expensive. So, my BFF [best friend forever] Beverly and I went to the mall. We tried on a lot of shoes. The floor was covered, boxes were stacked up. When the sales clerk went to wait on someone else, I just put my old shoes in the box and walked out of the store wearing my brand new Nikes.”

Monique said the ease of the whole thing frightened her at first, but it also made her want to try it again. By the time she was 14, she had a closet full of stolen goods and one teenage retail theft arrest record to her credit.

When asked how she got the stuff in the house without her mother knowing, she said, “I’d sneak it in when my mom was at work or out for the evening. When Mom would ask, ‘Where did you get that?’ I’d say, oh, I borrowed it, or Beverly gave it to me, or this old thing? I have had this for months.”

She laughed about how one time she was able to convince her mother that she had actually bought her an expensive sweater but did not remember buying it.

“Yeah, Mom asked me about my sweater,” Monique said, “and I said, you gave me this for Christmas last year. Don’t you remember? We bought it at Kohl’s.” Her mother said she didn’t remember and let it drop.

According to 17-year-old Simone (not her real name), a confidential inside source, the teenage shoplifting hotspot in the Austin area and west suburbs is North Riverside Mall. “The teens hit the smaller stores and shy away from the larger ones,” Simone said.

“A lot of North Riverside’s smaller stores don’t have the sensory tags,” she continued. “Only the bigger stores like Penny’s, Sears and T.J. Maxx have those. The smaller stores either have security guards you can get around or just nobody is there.”

The teens have their “M.O.” down to a science, she said. “Friends of the shoplifter crowd into one store, distracting the shop owner, and the shoplifter grabs what he wants and goes,” Simone said. “This happens in gas station stores too. That’s why you see those signs about only two students at a time because they are so small, and it’s easy for the teens to rip them off.”

Other hot spots are Wal-Mart and Kmart. Even though they have the door-checkers looking at receipts, they are easy targets. Sometimes teens have friends who work there and under-ring the items or don’t charge them at all. In some cases, they simply turn their backs while their friends just roll out a shopping cart full of stolen merchandise they slipped in a bag.

Last year, I actually visited a Forest Park courtroom to observe a court hearing. Much to my surprise, four out of five defendants were there for shoplifting in Wal-Mart. There were several mother-daughter teams. Whole groups of friends were there charged with theft in the same incident. In many cases, the defendants were given a choice of going to a behavior modification class and supervision in lieu of jail time. Of course, they opted for the class and left the courtroom feeling victorious. I actually chuckled when the judge ended his sentencing with “Stay out of Wal-Mart.”

I asked Simone, why do teens steal? “Because they can,” she said. “They have a whole routine. If it’s a new store for them, they steal little stuff they can put in their pockets or purse. If it’s a regular store they have hit many times, then the sky is the limit. It’s like this: If you have shopped in a store before and you have their big bag, all you have to do is bring it back and fill your bag with what you want and walk out,” she added.

Simone said many of her friends have tried to entice her to come along and join in the hype, but she flat-out refuses. “No thank you, I say. I’m not a thief.” Simone also said many teens say they steal because their parents won’t buy them certain things. Lillie, a 13-year-old junior high student, said, “I only take things I know for a fact my mother won’t buy me. That way I’m not left out of what’s in.”

Mirada, a 15-year-old con artist who has been stealing since pre-school, said she started stealing after her mom died. She was left alone with her father and they couldn’t afford a lot of things, so she developed a talent for “the five fingers discount.”

Mirada also said Walgreens is one of her weekly spots. “It’s something about going in there that makes me want to take something, anything. Yesterday, I took some mascara. I had on my gloves and put one of the sale papers over my hand. I pretended like I was reading the paper as I slipped the mascara into my glove. I walked out unnoticed.”

David, 19, started his crime wave early; however, he said he didn’t take anything big until he was 10. “I stole my friend’s Game Boy once. Then I tried to get out of Borders with some CDs. I hide them in my jacket sleeve and walked into the revolving doors and the alarm went off. The clerk had me come back in. She had me check my shoes, but she knew I had something in my pocket,” he said.

“My mom and my sister were with me and they watched me as I took off my jacket. My mom saw the CDs in the jacket sleeve and said nothing as I slipped them out and threw them on the counter before the clerk could see. I walked back towards the door, and this time the alarm didn’t go off, at least not until I got home. My mom hit the roof. I was grounded for a month,” he added. When asked if he still steals, David just laughed and said, “I don’t care to say.”