Panty raids aren't just for horny college kids anymore.
Industry groups and law enforcement officials say both amateur thieves and organized crime rings are to blame for thefts of loads of lingerie from high-end clothiers like Victoria's Secret in recent years. And some reports suggest that lingerie heists are on the rise.
In 2006, Victoria's Secret reported more than $2.7 million worth of bras stolen, a more than 80 percent increase over the previous year, according to the online security newsletter CSOOnline.com.
Although the company declined to comment, an executive at Victoria's Secret disputed the accuracy of those numbers and maintained that the number of thefts has remained relatively stable from year to year.
But in headline-grabbing operations over the last two years, bra bandits and panty pirates have pulled off thefts of thousands of dollars worth of high-end lingerie.
The thefts are more big business than fraternity prank, fueled by the lure of making a killing selling stolen undergarments on the black market and on eBay.
"It's an easily concealable item and a very high resale value," says Casey Chroust, senior vice president of retail operations at the Retail Industry Leaders Association.
Just last Friday, about 500 pairs of panties, three dozen pairs of mesh shorts and three dozen tank tops were snatched from a Victoria's Secret store at a mall in Jensen Beach, Fla.
"The shelves in the store were empty, and we are still investigating the incident," said Rhonda Irons, public information officer for the Martin County Sheriff's Office. "We have no known suspects at this time."
That same store has been targeted several times in the past few years, with thieves taking 400 pairs of pink designer panties in January 2007.
Last March, two men and a woman grabbed almost $12,000 worth of panties and bras, stuffing them into booster bags lined with aluminum foil to circumvent magnetic sensors at a Victoria's Secret store in New Jersey's Newport Center Mall.
"That store gets hit all the time," a worker at a nearby Frederick's of Hollywood told The New York Times. "All the time."
But that $12,000 haul wasn't even close to a record. Last May, federal agents and King County Sheriff's investigators recovered a $1 million load of Victoria's Secret lingerie and clothes when they foiled an attempted theft of a cargo truck in Seattle.
Easy Theft, Big Payoff
Unlike bulky clothing and flashy jewelry, lingerie is relatively easy to steal, and hundreds of $75 bras can easily be shoved into a large shopping bag, according to law enforcement officials.
"Brand lingerie and high-end jeans are very hot items," says Joseph LaRocca, the vice president of loss prevention at the National Retail Federation. "What items resell are those that are highly desirable.
Overall retail theft increased from $37.5 billion worth of goods in 2005 to $40.5 billion in 2006, the most recent statistics available, according to LaRocca.
"Organized retail crime has been a big problem," says an executive at a lingerie company who asked to remain anonymous. "It's a low-risk, high-reward activity, and it often flies under the radar screen."
Amateur thieves who steal several items at a time have different motives, says criminal psychologist Will Cupchik, the author of "Why Honest People Shoplift of Commit Other Acts."
Men who steal lingerie tend to be insecure about their masculinity or lack confidence in their romantic relationships, Cupchik said.
"If a man doesn't feel particularly manly or is satisfying his woman, he might just decide that he'll get her something to spice things up," he explained. "But out of anger or resentment, it's possible that he'll decide to steal it instead of spending money on it."
Women who steal lingerie are often driven by loss substitution, meaning they're looking to replace something that's been taken from them.
In studies Cupchik conducted in the 1980s and repeated in 1997, he found that almost three-quarters of shoplifters were dealing with a personal crisis, like cancer. "Stealing bras is an invasion of the department store, and cancer can be considered an invasion of the host body."
One of his patients was a woman in her 40s who was a compulsive thief. She told Cupchik that the first thing she stole was lingerie, even though she didn't wear lingerie. The kleptomania occurred just as her husband suffered from prostate cancer and became impotent.
"My hypothesis was that she stole lingerie because it's supposed to turn men on," Cupchik said.