Big problems from one act

February 03, 2004|by ANDREA ROWLAND

Don't think it's a big deal to pocket that $15 compact disc? Think again. Shoplifting is stealing - a crime that can have serious consequences, even if you're a teenager.

"It's a big hassle for what it's worth," said Ron Moser, director of security at Valley Mall in Hagerstown.

In Maryland, even most first-time offenders become part of the state's juvenile justice system, said Steve Kessell, an assistant state's attorney who often supervises juvenile cases in Washington County.

Shoplifters and their adult guardians first have to meet with juvenile justice workers to discuss the charges. Kids who haven't committed crimes before usually don't have to go to court - but they'll probably have to write letters of apology to wronged retailers, return the items they stole or pay for them, stay away from stores where they shoplifted and perform community service, Kessell said.


It's tougher for repeat offenders.

Juvenile justice workers will likely turn these kids' cases over to the state's attorney's office, where formal theft charges will be filed. These shoplifters will have to appear in court within 60 days for a delinquency hearing, which is a criminal trial for minors. If found guilty - and most juveniles charged with theft admit they're guilty in front of the judge - penalties range from indefinite supervised probation to, rarely, removal from the home, Kessell said.

Repeat offenders generally also have to pay restitution, write apology letters, stay away from stores where they shoplifted, complete community service hours, attend school regularly and participate in a program to curb shoplifting tendencies, he said.

"It may be all fun and games. They may think nobody's being hurt by it - but the truth is everybody's hurt by it," Kessell said.

Retailers lose more than $10 billion worth of goods to theft each year, according to Shoplifters Alternative, a division of Shoplifters Anonymous Inc., at www.shoplifters on the Web. The organization works to educate the public about shoplifting and help shoplifters kick the criminal habit.

At Suncoast Motion Picture Co. in Valley Mall, store employees are trained to look for suspicious behavior, and electronic surveillance equipment is used to monitor activity within the store, floor manager Dan Stoner said.

"We're pretty much on to it. I wouldn't suggest trying it," he said. "We also know a lot of the tricks that amateur and professional shoplifters use."

Like most other retailers, Suncoast workers turn shoplifters over to security officers or police.

Deputies from the Washington County Sheriff's Department might respond to shoplifting scenes if the shoplifter is a teen who refuses to cooperate with store security - like if the teen won't give identification or contact information for parents - or if the shoplifter tries to take off or assaults store security workers, Sgt. Travers Ruppert said.

Shoplifters are turned over to the police about 50 percent of the time, according to Shoplifters Alternative.

There are about 23 million shoplifters in the United States today, about 25 percent of which are teenagers. More than half of all adult shoplifters said they started stealing when they were teens, the organization states. And here's another disturbing fact: 86 percent of kids say they know other kids who shoplift, while 66 percent say they hang out with those kids.

"I would say it's more typical than not that when (teenage) shoplifting occurs, the kids are in groups," Kessell said. "Sometimes it's a matter of one person egging another one on."


s it worth it?

Confidential help for shoplifters is available by calling the toll-free Shoplifters Alternative telephone helpline at 1-800-848-9595.

A crime that catches up with people

  • More than 10 million people have been caught shoplifting in the last five years.

  • Shoplifters steal from all types of stores, including department stores, specialty shops, supermarkets, drug stores, music stores, convenience stores and thrift shops.

  • Men and women shoplift about equally as often.

  • Many shoplifters buy and steal merchandise in the same visit.

  • Shoplifters commonly steal from $2 to $200 per incident.

  • Most shoplifters don't plan to steal in advance.

  • About 3 percent of shoplifters steal solely for resale or profit as a business. These include drug addicts who steal to feed their habit, hardened professionals who steal as a lifestyle and international shoplifting gangs who steal for profit as a business.

  • Shoplifters steal an average of 1.6 times per week.

  • The excitement shoplifters feel when they get away with their crime produces a chemical reaction described as a "rush" or "high" feeling.

  • About one-third of teen shoplifters say it's hard for them to stop even after getting caught.

    - Source: Shoplifters Alternative on the Web at

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