Brooke Johnston, 10, couldn't reach a hat on the top shelf in a clothing store, so she asked the woman next to her for help. The woman smiled and gladly took the hat from atop its perch and handed it to Brooke. Beaming a cherubic smile, Brooke thanked her and promptly stuffed the hat into her backpack.
She was shoplifting, but she wasn't acting alone. Brooke had been hired by ABC's "What Would You Do?" to take part in a social experiment.
As the economy continues on a downward spiral, shoplifting is a problem for struggling businesses. According to the National Association of Shoplifting Prevention (NASP), every day more than $35 million worth of goods are stolen from stores. Retailers are fighting back; some malls are even going as far as to post mug shots of offenders caught red-handed as an ominous reminder that shoplifting is a crime.
It's not just adults who shoplift either. About 25 percent of offenders are kids, according to the NASP.
With the cooperation of Dor L'Dor, a boutique in Hoboken, N.J., we set up hidden cameras to see what people would do if they saw a mother, actress Donna Ross, and her daughter, first played by Brooke, and later by her sister Allison, stealing things from a store.
As they moved through the aisles, mom stuffed shirts, bracelets and other trendy accessories into her daughter's backpack. Within earshot of another customer, we directed Brooke to act like she was afraid of getting caught.
Though some customers ignored the whining child, one, Michelle Gurner, took action. She went over to the store manager, pretending to ask if they have a shirt in a different color. To prevent drawing unnecessary attention, she whispered that she saw the mother putting items in the girl's backpack.
"I wasn't sure what to do at first. I wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing before I said it. The first time I wasn't sure if I saw it, and then I saw it again the second time. So I went over there," said Gurner, who owns her own retail store. "As a store owner, it bothered me that someone was stealing."
People stepped in when they saw the shoplifter stealing with the little girl by her side, but what if the "mom" sent her daughter into the store alone to steal for her?
Tag-Teaming: Mother-Daughter Theft
We sent the mother-daughter team back in, and this time, mom instructed the daughter to play "shopping" and then meet her outside when she was done acquiring their five-finger discount.
After the young actress asked Suzanne Stingo to help get the hat down and then put it in her backpack, Stingo's eyes widened and she appeared puzzled. Stingo kept a close eye on the girl and spotted her grabbing gloves and other accessories.
Then Ross came back into the store, asking her daughter, "You all done sweetie?"
She nodded, and mother and daughter left the store with a bag full of merchandise.
Stingo was appalled and quickly told a sales girl about what just happened, but before our thieving duo could disappear, Stingo spotted them on the street and called them back into the store.
When confronted about what her "daughter" had just done Ross denied it at first, but then came clean.
"My husband just lost his job," she explained. "He's in the hospital too, and we don't have health insurance."
"I don't either," Stingo said. "There are a lot of people in that position. That's no reason to steal or have your child steal."
'It's the Right Thing to Do'
When the "What Would You Do?" camera crew caught up with Stingo outside the store, she said everyone should take action if they see someone stealing.
"We're citizens, so we should care about each other. These are all small businesses trying to make a living," Stingo said. "It's the right thing to do, and children shouldn't be taught to steal."
In an added twist, we decided to substitute Ross, the actress playing the mother, with a "nanny," played by Lorraine Rodriguez. Would more people intervene if they didn't think they were getting in between a parent and child?
Lindsay Klar was the first customer to catch these thieves in the act. At first she just observed as the nanny put clothes into the young girl's backpack. But as they made for the door, she asked them what they thought they were doing.
"I don't know. I feel bad. Obviously it's hard economic times right now. Everybody's doing poorly," Klar said. "I would do it regardless, but it's not fair for other customers and she was with the little girl. It's a terrible example to set for the little girl."
Find out how other store customers reacted by watching ABC's "What Would You Do?" Tuesday, Feb. 24, at 10:30 p.m. ET.