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Why Do People Steal When They Have Money?

Theft from a retail store or from one’s employer is a common charge in criminal court. Sometimes, my client is aware of the motivation for the theft but often the client seems bewildered by his/her own actions. Why do people who have the money to buy a desired object try to steal it anyway? This blog will focus on adults who commit theft and a separate blog will address teen-age theft.

Many people steal because they feel that life has shorted them in some respect and by stealing, they are taking steps to correct this injustice. It is irrelevant that the store where the property was stolen had nothing to do with the deprivation; it is the fact that something of value has been obtained without payment which triggers a feeling of vindication.

Emotional deprivation occurs when feelings of rejection or unmet personal expectations motivate a desire to remedy one’s misfortune. By taking a desired item, he/she is trying to balance life’s injustices with a windfall. “The question they’re asking is, “How can I make up for what I feel has been taken from me?” Stealing offers—at least momentarily—relief, peace, and completion. For a few minutes, they’ve made life fair again.” (Shulman, Something for Nothing: Shoplifting Addiction and Recovery.)

Financial deprivation occurs when the person has less money, assets or material goods currently as compared with a time previously. It could be a paper loss such as a fall in the stock market or it could be a diminution in their standard of living. Alternatively, the person feels that he/she has less money, assets or material goods than friends, peers or celebrities.
Entitlement occurs when a person feels that they deserve more than what they are receiving in the sale transaction. Although similar to deprivation, entitlement occurs in a predominantly affluent person who believes that moral precepts do not apply to him/her.

“It becomes a cat-and-mouse game: What are you going to see me take today? They’d pay for one of the things they were still holding but drop something extra in their shopping bag, like their own version of a free gift,” said a former Sephora employee who detained a woman for hiding cosmetics and skin products behind her baby’s head in an $800 stroller. An Anthropologie employee commented that the thieves were their best paying customers; some upper middle class women buy very expensive clothing and then “accessorize” for free. “We were taught that our prime shoplifters were women and girls who were regular shoppers” said one ex-employee, who every night would find piles of security tags in the fitting rooms which had been removed from apparel that day. “They would spend insane amounts and at the same time steal a few items because they felt that since they had spent so much money, they were entitled to freebies.”

A manager from Macy’s concurred, “It’s often the best customers who steal the most. They’re spending $100,000 a year, but just stole a bag for $5,000,” the ex-staffer said. (Jamieson, Why The Rich Feel Entitled to Shoplift, The New York Post, Aug. 9, 2015)

Instead of motivation preceding action, a theft case can present an example of action preceding motivation. Since impulsive and unexamined acts can result in detrimental consequences, I have to grudgingly admit that my mother’s adage, “Think before you act” is sound advice.