Inside the mind of a pathological shoplifter

Woman slips bottle of wine into bag Image copyright iStock

The thought of shoplifting may well conjure up images of teenagers trying to impress friends, but for one woman - who has been shoplifting for over 20 years - it has become a compulsion that is dominating her life.

For Laura - not her real name - it all began at the age of seven, when a friend's parent asked her to hide items in her pocket while out shopping.

Within months it had progressed to stealing classmates' toys at primary school and pinching items from a friend's house - a hair band or crayon.

"I did it mainly because I wanted the item. I would ask my parents to buy me certain things and they wouldn't, so I would then just take them."

Laura says it was these experiences that formed the basis of her addiction, which is now "out of control".

She shoplifts practically every day, taking anything from cosmetics and clothes to jam and nappies, often while her two young children are with her.

Before she left her job to take care of them, she would steal "money out of the till, money out of people's bags or purses" at work.

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"If I can take it, I will take it. It's basically an urge. There's something in my brain that's just telling me 'you want it, so take it'.

"Recently I was at my friend's house and I saw a skirt that really caught my eye. I didn't take it that day initially, because I couldn't. But it played on my mind, so I arranged a time to go back to the house and made a plan of how I could get it - and I just took it."

She believes none of her friends or family know of her addiction, and has no plans to tell her husband.

"I don't think he would understand. It's quite embarrassing, I'm ashamed of it."

Simon Stephens, a lead counsellor at Addictions UK, is not surprised by this reaction. He says it is comparable to the experiences of many other people going through addictions.

He believes this pathological need to shoplift is far more common than people realise.

"It is a genuine addiction that stems from the same issue as a gambling or drinking addiction. These people shoplift because they feel compelled to act by their subconscious, rather than for financial gain.

"They experience an emotional urge to experience the rush of adrenaline - and consequently dopamine - they receive from shoplifting, and the only way to suppress that is by giving in.

"From an addict's point of view, this rush mitigates all thought of those they are affecting."

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Media caption'Laura' explains why she sometimes feels compelled to steal from friends

Laura says she does feel remorse, but it stretches only so far.

"After I've taken an item, a lot of the time I'll feel guilt. Especially if it's been taken from a friend or someone I know. But when I steal from a department store, I don't feel as guilty. I feel they're not going to notice. They make a lot of money anyway."

Shoplifting in Britain costs more than £300m a year, according to the British Retail Consortium, with the value of goods stolen from British shops having risen to its highest level in a decade.

It also forces stores' insurance premiums to rise, which can put the cost of goods up for everyone else.

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The Victoria Derbyshire programme is broadcast on weekdays between 09:15 and 11:00 on BBC Two and the BBC News channel.

Based on the information Laura has provided, the Victoria Derbyshire programme has estimated she has stolen about £100,000 worth of goods in total. She is slightly surprised, "but not really, just because of how long I've been stealing and to the extent I've been stealing".

"When I get home and I see what I've got, then I'm quite happy that I have these nice new things."

But while she gets a buzz after the event, she says the act of stealing itself makes her nervous.

"My heart is pounding. I'm scared. I'm always scanning the shop. Who's around me? Who's behind me? It could take me up 20, 25 minutes because I'm so paranoid and I'm walking up and down aisles."

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Image caption High Street stores use security tags to prevent theft

Laura says she is now committed to stopping, and does not want to be someone that steals.

"I'm worried [my children] will pick up my bad habits and that they'll end up stealing. That would be my worst nightmare, really.

"I sometimes even change my handbag when I'm going out. I'll carry a bag that's really small, which I can't fit anything into. But I'll still work out a way to take something."

Laura had 12 sessions of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) after being referred by her GP, where she was given coping strategies to help her overcome the compulsion to steal.

One included creating a card containing five key reasons to resist shoplifting, which she could refer to in the moment. She says it was effective for a couple of weeks, but she soon slipped back into old habits.

She is now hoping hypnotherapy may be able to help her overcome the addiction.

The maximum sentence for repeatedly stealing in the UK is six months in prison. Laura has been caught shoplifting twice from the same department store, but the police were not called on either occasion.

"I couldn't imagine going to jail. I don't even want to think about that," she says.

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