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Compulsive shoplifting: More than just sticky fingers

October 2, 2012
by Shannon Brys, Associate Editor
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Many people think of the term “shoplifting” to mean the act of taking something out of a store without paying for it.  While this is true, Terrence Daryl Shulman, JD, LMSW, ACSW, CAADC, CPC, explained to a group at the National Conference on Addiction Disorders (NCAD) that there are many other acts that can be considered shoplifting. 

For example, switching pricetags on items and fraudulent returns can fall under this umbrella.  Also, being dishonest or secretive because the cashier did not see something else in the cart but the customer did not speak up to let them know it was in there, is considered shoplifting, according to Shulman.  He also talked about using the self-scanner at a grocery store and scanning most of the items but putting some in the bags without scanning them.  “Even if you pay $200, and you take a Snickers bar, that’s still stealing,” he said.

People shoplift for many reasons, he explained, such as a way to get money to support another addiction such as gambling, shopping, or purchasing drugs.  He also said that some people do get a high similar to those of other addictions from the action of taking something that they didn’t pay for. 

Shulman knows firsthand some of the reasons that people shoplift as he is a recovering compulsive shoplifter.  He told the audience a story about himself starting when he was a young teen and his parents got divorced.  At 12 years old, he said he had to become the man of the house, and by the age of 15 “I’d had it,” he said.  He started to feel a sense of entitlement that he deserved to do something for himself because he had been doing so many things for his family.  From the age of 15-25 he said that he would make it a daily habit to shoplift, usually nothing over $10.  He was arrested twice, and finally treatment helped him find his way out of his addiction.

Shulman is the founder and director of The Shulman Center, and has been featured on national television programs to speak about this phenomenon, including Oprah, The Today Show, Good Morning America, CNN, and20/20.

According to a CBC estimate, “Approximately 80% of North Americans have shoplifted at least once.”  As with most addictions, there is not one standard shoplifter profile.  According to Shulman, there are seven types and they are as follows:

1.      Professional thieves

2.      Drug/gambling/shopping addicts

3.      Improverished/financially strapped individuals

4.      Thrill seekers (usually young people)

5.      Absent-minded (those that shoplift by accident such as those on heavy medications, elderly, etc.)

6.      Cleptomaniacs

7.      The addictive-compulsives (people who act out of emotions and may get addicted)   


The top ten reasons that people shoplift, he explained are:

1.      Grief and loss: to fill a void

2.      Anger/revenge: life is unfair, to get back or to make things right

3.      Depression: to get a lift of energy

4.      Anxiety/stress

5.      Acceptance/competition

6.      Power/control

7.      Boredom/excitement: to create a sense of escape or challenge

8.      Shame/low self-esteem: to feel good at something

9.      Entitlement/reward: to reward self for over-giving or over-doing

10.   Rebellion/initiation: to break into one’s own authentic identity

According to a study from the University of Florida, “Shoplifting is estimated to account for between 30-40% of retailer’s lost profit” and “In 2009, retailers lost an estimated $15 billion per year to shoplifting.”    Ways to treat or prevent compulsive shoplifting include public/childhood education, reading books and articles on the topic, specialized therapy, and support groups, such as the one at the Shulman Center, Cleptomaniacs and Shoplifters Anonymous (CASA).  Other preventative and treatment measures include retailers’ cooperation and legal system education/resources. 

Shulman also said that there are some medications that could help to combat compulsive shopping and those are Naltrexone, Celexa, and Topamax.