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Teen Shoplifting: Causes and Consequences

The Anonymity Myth

The rise in kids' tech usage has added a new dimension to shoplifting. "Teens are going on trading sites like Craigslist or eBay, as well as Facebook, Twitter and their cell phones to sell what they grab from brick-and-mortar stores," says Staib. "They tend to feel the rules don't apply in cyberspace." And assuming that nobody knows who they are, kids conclude they're safe. But they're not. These sites have investigators who work directly with retailers to connect goods a store is missing with the UPCs or other codes from items people are selling online. Getting caught is tough enough for teens and their families, but what's also at stake is a moral standard.

There's alarming evidence that adolescents' values are already slipping. According to the Josephson Institute, which tracks adolescent thoughts and attitudes, almost one in three kids say they've stolen from a store. Yet 92 percent of teens overall say they're satisfied with their ethics—meaning there's a large group who steal but don't see anything wrong with it. Selling stolen goods online, especially if you aren't discovered, feels so easy it can reinforce the notion that what matters is not whether you're doing what's right, but whether you're getting away with it.

Not My Kid

Shoplifting is an equal-opportunity crime: Boys and girls steal in the same numbers, and every economic and social group is affected. "There are angry teens, often in poverty, who steal out of rage," says Neil Bernstein, PhD, author of How to Keep Your Teenager Out of Trouble and What to Do If You Can't. "And there are affluent ones, with credit cards in their wallets, who do it for sport." (Terry had enough money on her to buy the belt she swiped.) While teens with a history of behavioral problems sometimes steal, it's actually kids who seem to have the fewest problems who are most likely to shoplift.

"The most popular kids at middle school are between two and three times more likely to shoplift than other children," says Joseph P. Allen, PhD, coauthor of Escaping the Endless Adolescence. "It's not that their motives are sinister. They do it to participate in whatever they see their peers doing." Whoever's involved, it's easier to predict what teens will take. "They're most likely to grab hot products, like iPods and video games, as well as any items that are small, high in value and can easily be concealed," says Casey Chroust, executive vice president of the Retail Industry Leaders Association. Restricted products, such as cigarettes and condoms, also have special appeal. (Girls are generally more likely to reach for makeup, jewelry and clothing, while boys grab electronics and clothes.)