Do you even shoplift, bro?

Alisha Aitken-Radburn examines the online presence of five-finger discounters.

They blog under pseudonyms like ‘Lift Witch’, ‘Kleptolover’, and ‘lil-lifter’. They subscribe to informal commandments ranging from “thou shalt not be a snitch” to “thou shalt be a bad bitch.” And they are all over the world, with contributors from Australia, the US and the UK.

The hidden community of shoplifters, affectionately known as ‘lifters’, existed in relative anonymity before Tumblr user ‘We-Unhallowed’ exposed the subculture.  Accompanying a hyperlinked list of the blogs exclusively dedicated to shoplifting, We-Unhallowed posted the message, “[I] have stumbled upon a circle of teenage shoplifters on Tumblr. It’s hilarious. They post pictures of everything they steal and call them ‘hauls’.”

Connecting with each other through hashtags like #shoplifting, #klepto, #stickyfingers and #fivefingerdiscount, the predominantly young, female community post everything from shoplifting tips and tricks to general life updates.They discuss how to evade security through blind spots and cutting holes in the lining of their bags. They even share links to what they deem safe, reliable websites to buy hooks and magnets to remove security devices.

One user keeps a running tally of how much they save by shoplifting, bragging: “Total damage since April 2014: $366.65.” Ever since the community was exposed earlier this year, the lifters have received a barrage of criticism. They share examples of ‘hate’ they’ve received with each other – messages from Tumblr users outside the lifting community who condemn them for their actions. While much of the hate directed to the lifters is expressed through profanities, some users attempt to appeal to the morality of the shoplifters by highlighting the impact of their habit on employees and small businesses.

Many of the bloggers have maintained a high level of anonymity from the get go, insisting their blogs are ‘role-playing’ or investigations for honours papers in areas from criminology to psychology. With the outing of the community and the accompanying media attention, many of the more open lifters have deleted their Tumblrs. A few mentioned fears that they’ll get caught not while shoplifting, but from their posts online.

Lil-lifter’s greatest fear was the social approbation of being caught. “Imagine the embarrassment if you are identified and everyone at school/work and your neighbours and family finds out. hopefully it will never happen and im just being paranoid [sic].”

Others remain bold despite the risks. Anne*, a university student in Sydney, claims to have stolen $20,000 worth of goods. She eBays what she has stolen for profit, a practice known as ‘boosting’. She told me her room is full of stolen items she plans to sell in the future.“I started lifting and boosting so I could be independent. I am my own boss.”

I asked her if she felt guilty.

“Without being too dramatic… the only time I feel anything is when the money from eBay is deposited into my bank account.”

Some rationalise their actions as “retail redistribution”. Others say they lift because they “deserve nice things”.

In 2013 there were 21,733 reported incidents of theft from retail stores in NSW. And those are only the incidents that are reported. The NSW director of the National Retail Association Michael Lonie told The Sydney Morning Herald in December 2013 that retail theft costs the industry $180 million in the six weeks before Christmas alone.

“Over the entire year, the industry loses about $4 billion as a result of goods stolen by external parties,” Mr Lonie said.

But most of the lifting community isn’t too concerned with the politics of the act. They revel in cataloguing exactly how much they’ve saved. Many do, however, seem to subscribe to a set of shared values. Lifter Gloria*, known on Tumblr as ‘acquirerofthings’, said she had very little guilt when it came to shoplifting.

“I kept a spreadsheet with dates, items and values with a running total at the top. It was kind of a game to see how much I could steal.”

Gloria attributed her lack of guilt to her obedience of three basic rules common in the shop-lifting community: one, don’t steal from actual people, two, don’t steal from small businesses, and three, don’t steal from your own workplace. She tried to minimise the impact of her lifting by only targeting larger companies and ensuring she only stole from those who could afford it.

“Now, I’m completely aware that I’m still a selfish, greedy asshole. But it makes it less bad. [Large companies] expect shrinkage to happen and know it’s unavoidable so it’s factored into the prices already,” she said.

Unlike Anne, Gloria has been caught.

 “I was super bummed out about it for weeks. But I think that was more because you can only really get caught once. Get caught once, you can play it off as a ‘mistake’ or ‘lapse in judgement’; get caught twice, and they know you’re a thief. And I was super annoyed at myself for wasting my free pass on something so stupid.”

Gloria escaped her hearing at her local magistrates court with a caution, a fine and a year-long ban from the store in question.

For many lifters, Tumblr simply provides a space in which to gloat over past successes. For others, lifting and online engagement with other lifters constitutes an outlet for other anxieties. Anne said she hasn’t told her partner she lifts.

“My boyfriend doesn’t know, he doesn’t understand my depression or anxiety, so he couldn’t even fathom why I would lift. He loves me and everything and he’s a sweetie, but sometimes in life people just don’t understand mental illness.”

Having abandoned her lifting Tumblr for fear of being caught, Anne misses her ‘support’ network online.

“I really miss Tumblr. I miss having all those messages in my inbox asking my opinion, saying how cool my hauls were and it was just nice to feel like I belong,” she said. “It was great while it lasted, and I liked being needed.”

* Names have been changed