Addicted: Shoplifting For Thrills

Shoplifters Try to Battle The Addiction

The courtroom drama was over Wednesday for actress Winona Ryder. After a weeklong trial and a little more than a day of jury deliberations, the actress was found guilty of grand theft for stealing more than $5,500 worth of high-fashion merchandise from a Saks Fifth Avenue store.

Ryder's trial focused attention on those who shoplift. The crime is common across America, says correspondent Maureen Maher.

At a support group meeting in suburban Detroit, Lucy, a real estate agent and divorced mom, talks about her experiences as a shoplifter.

It's a high so good that Lucy can't get enough of it, but a shame so great that she's never told her three grown children.

Why would a successful businesswoman risk everything to steal something she could easily buy?

"They feel compelled because something has happened, usually just prior to their taking that item, in their life, something that usually involves a major stress or trauma that they have not dealt with properly," says psychologist Will Cupchik.

He says these ordinarily law–abiding people are trying to replace something they've lost in their lives. For some people, it can become an addiction, like drugs, alcohol, gambling, food or sex.

After years of shoplifting, Lucy was finally caught, and is now on probation.

"What precipitated (my shoplifting) was number one, the death of my dad, and number two, was a huge - this is no excuse - but a huge loss in the market. That makes me real mad; that makes me real mad," Lucy says.

Though they never talked about it, Lucy learned to shoplift by watching her mother. She remembers "just looking around the corner and seeing something fall into her purse."

Eventually Lucy's mother, who had been battling depression, killed herself over a shoplifting incident.

"There's more of a stigma attached to shoplifting than to having problems with alcohol or having problems with drugs," says Cupchik.

Thirty-seven-year-old Terry Shulman, an attorney and social worker in Detroit, knows how shoplifters think because he has been stealing since his teens.

"A shoplifter is always alert for opportunities to get something for nothing," he says. "They see it and the thought might immediately come to mind, 'I wonder if I can get away with this?' They might not even need the item, but just the getting something for nothing is the adrenaline rush."

Shulman now believes the trauma of growing up in a broken home and the early death of his alcoholic father turned his adolescent shoplifting into an addiction.

"In a vulnerable moment early on," he says, "I found that I got a high. And it somehow fulfilled me. On some level, it was giving me back what I wanted, and while I knew it wasn't right, it was very addictive. It had a power of its own."

He's been caught twice, the last time 10 years ago at a supermarket when he tried to leave with a bottle of champagne under his coat.

While psychologists are only just beginning to recognize that shoplifting may be an illness, as addictive as drugs or gambling, stores and the legal system see it very much as a crime. The more you do it, the more likely you'll be caught, and the more likely you'll end up in jail.

Facing more than $10 billion in shoplifting losses each year, stores are trying to stop people like Shulman and Lucy.

But Shulman says security tags and hidden cameras aren't the answer because they don't go "to the heart of the problem." He tried therapy, but found it wasn't enough.

"I had even tried being on medication for a while, and nothing seemed to be doing the trick," he says. There didn't seem to be a support group for people with his problem.

"I just found it incredible that there weren't other people out there like me," he says. So he started Cleptomaniacs and Shoplifters Anonymous. It helps Shulman and others understand why they do it, and how they can keep from doing it again.

Sandra, a housewife and grandmother, kept her shoplifting addiction a secret from her husband of 35 years, until, she was facing criminal charges.

In spite of tens of thousands of dollars in fines and fees, Sandra hasn't completely kicked her habit. Like Lucy and Shulman, she faces temptation every day.

"I hope it goes away," Lucy says, "but realistically, the temptation, a little bit of that, will always be there."

The stress of planning an upcoming wedding led Shulman back into thoughts of shoplifting. He saw a small handkerchief that he thought he could take.

Why didn't he do it?

"I tell myself that I deserve to have a good life," he says. "And I know that while I might get a momentary boost or high from pocketing that, I know I'm worth more than $10."