1. "Just take it."
When I was a teenager, I stole a lot. I'm talking thousands of dollars of clothes from H&M and books from Barnes & Noble. When I turned 18, I stopped because I knew I could do some serious time. (And honestly, the idea of my my mother finding out I was a shoplifter and how hard her heart would break was too much to bear).
When I was a junior in college, after a few years of not shoplifting, my roommate asked me to get her some Head and Shoulders while I was at Stop and Shop. When I asked her for money, she said, "Just take it!"
I figured, sure, why not? All I needed was some acidophilus for a dog I was dog-sitting, so it's not like I was stealing A LOT.
I went to Stop and Shop (a grocery store that most of my college went to and that I went to at least once and week), dropped the shampoo and acidophilus in my bag, and walked out. An employee came charging at me in the parking lot and, before I had time to run, he dragged me inside by my arm, past a lot of my college mates, and brought me into a back room. I immediately let the water works flow and told them I've never stolen in my life and my roommate put me up to it. They told me my roommate was a scumbag and, when they saw how tall I was on my ID, asked if I played basketball. I told them yes, I was the forward on the ladies team at my college. (LIE. THOUGHT IT WOULD MAKE ME LOOK MORE INNOCENT. IT WORKED.)
They didn't press charges, but they did take my photo and hung it up in their office. I was on Stop and Shop probation or something for like a year.
2. The pot roast plunderer.
I wouldn't dare steal (except from CVS, whatever), but my sister once worked at a supermarket and there was this shady-looking fellow walking around conspicuously in a novelty 10-gallon hat. Upon closer inspection of this fellow, my sister noticed he had blood streaks pouring down his face. She alerted the manager, who then asked Blood Streaks to remove his hat. Underneath it was a entire POT ROAST!
3. The bed of lies.
One time I stole a bed frame. It was sitting in the hallway of a building I had just moved into in college. It was clearly a new, simple frame from Ikea, freshly assembled, but it was out there for like an hour, so I convinced myself that someone was throwing it away and took it. I literally slept on a bed of lies for a year.
Yes. Tinned anchovies. And more than once too. As a grown man. Don't ask me why — I guess I thought they were vastly overpriced and wanted to stick it to the man. I didn't slip them into my pocket, just left them in the bottom of the cart and added them to my bag at the end. The shame, the horror. The delicious extra flavor!
5. The recovering kleptomaniac.
I still have the very first thing I stole: a small rock with a paw print painted on it. It was for sale at a museum gift shop for $12.50, and I was in second grade. It seemed so ridiculous to me that something like a rock could be sold for that much money once someone had dressed it up a little. So I took it. It was a rush, which I quickly became very into.
From then on, I would steal almost every time I went into a store without direct supervision. Usually very small things: pens, candy. I got caught in about a year stealing candy from a mall shop. I was with a friend and her mother, and it was absolutely mortifying. My mother laid out some pretty significant punishments for me: writing letters of apology, a whole month during which I wasn't allowed into any retail store with long sleeves on... and this was on top of the initial outrage that frightened the wits out of me.
I didn't steal anything for a few years, but then an older friend of mine got me hooked again when she stole a pair of lacy underwear from Victoria's Secret. She was brazen about it — just ripped off the tag off in the dressing room and put it in her purse. "$12.50 is way too much for some cheap lace thrown together in Indonesia for mere pennies," she quipped. I started stealing in earnest, almost immediately, but going knowingly back down that path, I vowed never to get caught again.
I set some ground rules, some sort of thief's ethics. Only big-box corporations; no mom-and-pop shops, no small businesses. No stealing from friends. No stealing from the street or from strangers. Basically, I would stick to shoplifting, and only execute in such a way that would be very, very hard to catch.
I had a plethora of techniques, which I won't share, that involved intimate knowledge of a store's layout, security practices, pricing/labeling structure. Discount department stores like TJ Maxx were my favorite easy targets, although nothing was off-limits in that realm. I stole volumes of food from Whole Foods and other fancy chains regularly. Sometimes I would walk into a place like Urban Outfitters and walk out with new shoes on. For quite a while, I wasn't ever really just shopping.
My biggest-ticket item came from a local discount department store, which had just started carrying the odd designer item. I came across a velvet Dolce & Gabbana jacket with a gorgeous silk lining in the clearance rack. Even marked down it was over $700.00. God knows what the original price was. It looked like a mistake among all the other wares — your garden variety of brand name suit jackets and such, also marked down, but from $39.99 to, say, $20... I got it for $20.
One of my other biggest heists was a pair of shoes, bought at a falsely discounted rate of $24.99 and returned, without receipt and with the sale tag off, for $129.00 worth of store credit, with which I bought even better shoes.
I only ever had one close call. After actually paying for some clothing, I noticed that the clerk had not rung up a hat I was buying, and it went in my bag with everything else. It was a rush decision and the alarm went off (they had updated their merchandise controls...good to know). I went dutifully back to the counter and faked an honest mistake. I think they knew better but gave me the benefit of the doubt.
So the technology was getting better, the recession was hitting hard so the stores were more on the lookout than ever, and this was New York City where there were always eyes on you... I had seen other times when a guilty-looking girl got hauled into the backroom of a store and, a few minutes later, officers showed up and went through the same door. That feeling — that I had almost been one of those girls, waiting for the cops, going to court, getting a black mark on my otherwise squeaky clean record — was enough to make me start thinking about giving it up.
It was actually harder than I thought. It had turned into such an automatic compulsion that retraining myself to not look for every opportunity to rip something off was almost a losing battle. But stealing is one of those things: You are going to get caught, sooner or later, and that thought started to hover around me like a police helicopter in every store. At the end of that year I made the only resolution I have ever kept: to quit while I was ahead.
I could wax poetic and say that stealing for me was one of those small ways one can stand against a system of exploitation and mindless consumption, to stick it to the man. Or perhaps go into the psychology, in those early days, when all my friends seemed to have money for whatever they wanted from some absentee parent and I didn't. But reality betrays me; I never rallied for garment workers' rights, and having parents around is actually more valuable than money or material things. When I am honest with myself, I just wanted shit I didn't want to pay for, so I took it, so I am, and probably always will be, a recovering kleptomaniac.
6. The book thief.
I was in college and it was during the WTO conference in Seattle that was shut down by epic protests in 1999. I was a freshman in college and was getting really involved in political activism. I had a few friends who proudly stole from chain stores. There really wasn't (and isn't) a corporate store whose parent company wasn't or isn't involved in some horrible practice that we were against. The rationale was that it was OK to steal from corporate stores because they should go out of business. It wasn't only justified, but really a moral imperative. They were putting small business under, sending jobs overseas, destroying the environment, and they deserved to go down.
I had never stolen anything before but I could agree with this more so than any other argument I had ever heard for stealing. Also my friends made it sound really easy. One of them had stolen a ton of books from Barnes and Noble and told me what to look out for — how to find the security tags in the books and cut them out. They warned me specifically that any book having to do with hip-hop always had multiple security tags in it, so you'd have to look through it carefully. I figured I should try it out — for the good of the movement. They had just opened a Barnes and Noble on campus at Temple University in North Philadelphia.
I went into the store. I didn't have something in particular I wanted to steal. It was more about just stealing really. I didn't have a plan of what it was going to be. I walked around and saw a book about understanding racism that I had heard was good. I figured that if I was going to "liberate" a book from Barnes and Noble then it should be something worthwhile politically. This way it was kind of like a two-for-one deal for the revolution. I looked through the book and saw the security sticker. I carefully took it out and then quickly put the book in my bag. I was so nervous I started shaking. I kept looking around to see if people were watching me. I was convinced that everyone was watching me. I was scared to move and sat there for a while just trying to look like I wasn't stealing: "Just an ordinary guy being ordinary nothing special here people."
Eventually I figured I was going to have to go for it. I picked up my book bag and headed for the door, making sure I was just looking straight ahead like a normal person would. I got to the door and took a glance back. I did it! I thought. I can't believe I made it! I opened the door, and as soon as I did, the security alarm went off. I yelled, "Oh shit!" really loudly, and just started running as fast as I could right into oncoming traffic on Broad Street (one of the biggest and busiest streets in Philadelphia). A car screeched to a halt to not hit me, and I kept right on running, weaving in and out of cars for a whole block before making it to the other side of the street. I zigzagged through campus and then jumped into some bushes. I was gasping for breath and my heart was pounding in my chest.
I sat in the bushes for about 20 minutes until I was sure no one had followed me. I eventually ran back to the dorms. I opened the book and looked through it, and sure enough there was a second security tag. Clearly a book on racism was also classified as high risk by the Barnes and Noble management, or maybe they thought it was about hip-hop. I still felt justified, on paper, but I felt really bad. I'm still not sure if I just felt bad about stealing or felt bad that I was so shitty at stealing, but it either way it just felt like my talents lay elsewhere. For the next two weeks I got super paranoid whenever I went anywhere near the Barnes and Noble and it never really went away. In my entire four-and-a-half-year stay at school, I never set foot in that Barnes and Noble again.
7. The panty bandit.
Oh man... in sixth grade, myself and two friends went to Hecht's (like a Macy's basically) department store and decided to steal fancy bras that we didn't need. We were too embarrassed to ask our parents for training bras, so we took matters into our own hands.
We probably stole three bras each by putting them all on at once and walking out of the store.
We left the store and were halfway down the stairs before a security guard came after us. We surrendered almost immediately.
We were fined three times the cost of what we stole (but we were never billed) and we were banned from the store for one year. This included them taking "mugshots" of each of us and posting them at the cash registers.
My family STILL makes fun of me about this to this day. Mortifying then, sad now.
8. "Dear Tal, Happy birthday. I bought this for you because you like sex."
In second grade, my friend and I were oddly obsessed with the sexy scene of Rizzo and Kenickie in the movie Grease. When I was at a local card store with my mom, there was a sexy card with a woman's butt on it. I didn't want to show my mom that I wanted to buy my friend the card for her birthday (Feb. 9), so I simply stole it. Inside the card I wrote, "Dear Tal, Happy birthday. I bought this for you because you like sex."
Little did I know she would become infuriated and show our teacher, who was also my private tutor. She told my mom on me and I was grounded.
9. "Don't all 17-year-old girls steal from department stores?"
When I was 17 going on 18, I developed what I thought was a really sophisticated scheme of stealing from my employer, a major department store chain. I pulled up old receipts from the computer and returned the merchandise to gift cards. I remember giving a few of them away as gifts but I was terrified to use them myself — I think I once drove to a store 30 miles away just to try it out. Also, all of the clothes and shoes at that store were abominably ugly, so I really had no good reason to steal.
What I didn't realize was that their asset protection team (probably the most efficient and well-resourced department in the entire corporation) had been watching me the entire time. It waited patiently until I turned 18, then nabbed me in action. I was charged as an adult because... well, I was. I was too ashamed to tell my boyfriend — also an employee at the store — that I had been stealing. He stormed in and quit his job immediately and it took him months to find a new one.
I graduated from high school two weeks later, sure that I was doomed to be a criminal for the rest of my life. Humiliated, I lied to almost everyone about why I got fired, but in retrospect most of them probably figured it out. I struggled with legal fees and community service all through college and I was afraid to apply to any job with a formal background check.
It took me a full year into dating my would-be husband to divulge my secret, and I thought for sure he would break up with me immediately for my lack of character. He just started laughing and said, "Don't all 17-year-old girls steal from department stores?" They don't, but at least I've finally realized I did not commit the crime of the century.
10. The Pokemon thief.
When I was 10, I jacked a packet of Pokemon stickers from Gristedes. My younger sister (then 6) saw me do it, and I told her to keep her mouth shut. She didn't say another word, but something about the way she looked at me the next few days filled me with guilt. I couldn't bring myself to open up the packet. I hid the stickers at the bottom of my toy chest and never touched them again. For years, they sat as a reminder of this terrible deed from days past. I would forget all about it, and then, once every few months or so, I'd reach for a toy on the bottom, and I'd catch just a glimpse of those stickers, remembering the terrible act I once committed.
11. The jacket swapper.
When I was younger, I used to read — a lot. And as much as I loved books, the one thing I hated was how much new hardcovers cost. I mean, we're talking $30 in rural New Jersey in the '90s. And when you don't have a job, they might as well have cost $300.
So whenever there was a new book I desperately wanted to read, I would go to Barnes & Noble, find a copy, and then take said copy to the bargain section where I would find a tome of comparable size and switch the book jackets so my $30 book now boasted a drastically reduced price tag.
The adrenaline rush came in two places: first, during the jacket swap. Are cameras watching me do this right now? But the highest criminal high came upon checkout when I always anticipated the cashiers would flip open the book cover and see the jacket didn't match what was printed on the inside.
They never did. I successfully got away with this scam for nearly a decade.
12. The CVS criminal.
This story isn't that of a major heist, but it's a good one. The one time I was caught stealing was also my first attempt at it. I was in a CVS at the terrible urban mall that my friends and I would hang around in at our attempt to be mall rats like suburban kids. I found a Wet N' Wild black eyeliner pencil, which at retail cost was literally 99 cents and ever so smoothly slipped it under my jacket sleeve. An employee, wearing an unmissable bright red CVS vest was standing right down the aisle from me and called me out right away.
My friends and I were shamed and kicked out and told not to come back to the all-important pharmacy that comprised the makeup buying and trying on part of our mall time, and, as 12- and 13-year-old girls are the best at dramatizing any situation, nobody spoke to me for another few hours, allowing the shame of my deviancy to fully sink in. We later made up among the baby tees in Contempo Casuals, and I promised myself I would never steal again, which remained in effect for the next few years, until my nail polish theft streak began.
13. The keeper of the prizes.
I worked at a water park arcade one summer during college. (I know, ugh, right?) Anyway, summer was winding down and everyone was headed back to school. It was our job as ticket-gun holders and keepers of all prizes behind the counter to determine how many tickets a prize was worth, enter that info into the system, and then scan arcade player's tickets to redeem prizes. PRETTY STRAIGHTFORWARD.
One of my co-workers came into the park on her last day before heading back to school, and said she'd been saving her tickets all summer. She wanted a mini-television for her dorm room, which was a steep 30,000 tickets. She'd saved about 18,000 tickets from a summer full of Skee-Ball games, and was just 12,000 short. Having the digital ticket gun at my disposal and a general lack of concern over the profit margin of the water park arcade, I took her tickets, scanned an extra 1-2-0-0-0 and handed her the TV: "Have a great school year!"
She was walking through the parking lot with mini-TV under arm when the owner of the park passed her, recognized her, and hauled her back inside where she immediately threw me under the bus. "She gave me the tickets!" Busted. He called the cops, and, wanting to make an example out of us, decided to press charges. They took us out in cuffs. In front of dozens of children. And their horrified parents. Humiliating. Ultimately I had to show up to a hearing and attend retail theft diversion classes for a couple of Saturdays that fall. Soul crushing! But a good lesson in the end. I never "stole" again!
14. The chronic shoplifters.
Sometime in the summer between eighth and ninth grade, my friends and I learned that Nordstrom doesn't prosecute shoplifters — something about it being better to eat the loss than drum up negative attention and create an uncomfortable situation for its upscale clientele. Who knows?
So a group of three or four of us girls would dress in our shoplifting finest — usually an oversize hoodie, wide-leg jeans, and a big purse — and storm Brass Plum like it was our job. Only anyone who knew anything about '90s teenage mall fashion would know that no one could afford a wardrobe like that on an after-school job. Silver Jeans flares (remember the Sicily bell bottoms?), glittery DKNY three-quarter sleeve tops, Roxy surf dresses… you name it, it was all up for grabs. There were no sensors on anything. I remember these really comfy and nylon shorts from Guess that came in yellow, blue, black, and red. They all had matching logo tees too. Super cute. So like any teenage klepto, I grabbed up all four pairs in consecutive sizes, layered them on in the dressing room and walked straight out the store into the back seat of my friend's car (of course we had a getaway vehicle).
We'd pull the same thing at Sephora back when it first opened in our town. You've never seen so many Hard Candy eye shadow quads in your life. To this day, if I spot Urban Cowboy on a girl's lids (and cheeks), it takes me straight back to palming those babies into my puffy coat pocket behind that one makeup application kiosk that hid the camera (intel from an employee friend). Eventually, we grew out of it. #suburbs.
15. The American Apparel trickster.
At the end of a summer during college, my car was broken into while I was driving back to school. I lost a bunch of the things I'd owned till then — mostly clothes — and in the process, sort of gave up on the idea of buying things. I stole for a couple years after that: predominantly food from supermarkets plus things like clothes from American Apparel, which used to be an easy mark because they didn't tag anything with censors.
My "trick" was simple: If you don't think of what you're doing as abnormal, and move quickly, people probably won't notice. I only got caught once, at an upscale grocer, while slipping bottles of wine into my bag. The employee didn't call the cops, but we exchanged some more-than-reasonable "Yeah, that's too much" words. This was at the end of my shoplifting tenure; when I moved to another town, actually had money to buy groceries, and got more comfortable with the fact that growing up would entail buying and owning things, stealing just stopped making sense. But on rare occasions since, I've pocketed a lip gloss. I really can't explain why.
16. The gullible friend.
When I was 13, I used to hang out with this girl Michelle who was totally bad. One day, we decided to skip school and go into the city, which was an hour away. I only had my school uniform with me so we went to the mall down the road from school and she bought me a new outfit, intending to return it at the end of the day. We went into the city, me in my cool new clothes, tags still on. We went to a couple of department stores and she convinced me to steal makeup and things. We stole some eye shadows and lip glosses. At the end of the day, we came back to the mall and successfully returned my clothes. She wanted to stop at a makeup store to steal some more stuff, so on the way out we went in and she kept the shop assistant busy while I slipped some blue eye shadow into my bag, full of other stolen goods. Success!
We left the store, and were almost out of the mall when a hand grabbed my shoulder and spun me around. It was the mall security guard: this huge woman, tough as hell with a shaved head. She said, "You're coming with me," and dragged me back to the store. Michelle vanished. Back at the store she made me give back the eye shadow, threatened to call the police, and asked for my identification. I told her I didn't have any. (A BOLD LIE.) Because I didn't want to have to open my bag and let her see all the other things we had stolen, she eventually let me go and I have never stolen a thing again in my life. My mom must have read my diary, because about a month later she told me she'd seen my face on a montage of security footage used in an "anti-shoplifting" TV campaign, trying to get me to confess to my crime. She was totally lying but I spent a long time thinking I was a hardened criminal. I'm still scarred by it all. Michelle and I are no longer friends, but she turned out OK and now lives in Copenhagen.
17. The trading card pirates.
When I was a kid my friends and I were really into collecting X-Men trading cards. They were sort of like baseball cards, but they had pictures and descriptions of various Marvel Comics X-Men-related characters. We all really wanted the limited holograms, but going pack by pack at the local video store was becoming tedious. So my friends and I hatched a plan.
The local outlet mall, which was tremendous, had a KB Toys that had cases of the cards on its shelves. Two friends and I hatched a plan to snatch a box, escape on our bikes, and then divide our big score. I would look out by the aisle, one friend would watch the front of the store, and the other world do the snatch and shove. The snatch and shove required him to quickly grab the item, toss it into a plastic bag with an existing purchase (a can of soda from a newsstand).
We talked about this for days, it wasn't just an idea... it was a mission. We were three kids with high-powered bikes (well, not really, I had a 10-speed) and we were fueled by sugar. You know how it is for 13-year-olds — we really were just out of our minds due to puberty and just general teenage boy nonsense. Finally the day came and we were prepared. We wore shirts with nothing that would make us easily noticeable, our bikes were locked up close to where the toy store was for a quick getaway. We were ready...
We made it into the mall, executed our plan, and walked slowly giggling from the toy store. No one was the wiser and everything went exactly as planned. We went back to a dead-end road near our homes with the box of booty. We opened up our $30 prize and found a massive amount of precious holograms cards. Oh Iceman in shimmering silver, how you alluded me for so long. It took me to break the law to get you. You were mine.
We took to a few other scams, like snagging a few computer and SNES games a few months later, but eventually one of us (not me) went on his own to try snagging a copy of Star Fox. He was not successful and was eventually held by the mall cops. It was bloody, but he didn't rat. He admitted to nothing else and was banned from the mall. This is when my life of crime ended. I've stayed on the straight and narrow ever since, but holding those holograms, that was pure bliss.
18. The suit stealer.
In college I once tried to steal two entire suits from H&M by stuffing them into a messenger bag. Naturally I got caught. The store's security guy would not believe that I was just stealing them to wear them either. He really thought he was busting up some kind of high-level shoplifting ring when he caught me. Once he realized I was basically just a fop, he let me go.
19. The delivery scam.
I used to deliver for this restaurant that got A TON of those online orders from Seamless and Delivery.com. Unlike almost every other place I'd ever worked for that took online orders, this place didn't run them through the computer and only kept one copy of the order, so it would get faxed in, handed to the kitchen, stapled to the bag and sent to the customer. When I dropped the order off, I'd take the order and hang on to it until I'd count up my tips and get paid out.
Ordinarily most of these orders were paid for by credit card. Sometimes I'd have an order that was paid for by credit card, but I'd get tipped in cash. Other times someone would order and say they'd pay with cash when the order arrived. I basically figured out that as long as I threw the order printout away after delivering the online-cash orders, nobody would ever notice that it was missing and I'd keep the total.
20. The beer burglar.
In 2005 or so, right when craft beer was becoming a thing you could find in any ol' bodega in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, there was a supermarket on Fulton that had a GIANT beer selection. It had to have taken up half the store. Tons of rare and expensive bottles and six-packs. They all had price tags, but they never scanned at the register. I guess whoever ordered them never bothered to put them in the computer. All I had to do was take the price tags off and I'd get everything for basically nothing. The cashiers were all Muslim women and, because they didn't drink, they had no idea how much the stuff was supposed to cost, so they'd just ring everything up at a buck or two. I did it for about six months, every time getting at least a hundred bucks worth of nice beers for $15 or $20. It was awesome.
Sadly, one time I went in there, brought a ton of stuff to the register and it all rung up as regular price and I ended having to buy most of it. What was I going to say, "Oh, I only want that stuff if it's not going to ring up properly"?
21. And good ol' candy pants.
My mom never let me eat candy as a kid. So I learned how to shove it down my pants. I'm not proud of it, but I'd go home, take off my pants, and, well...candy in my pants.