Stealing From Hotels: Harmless Thrill or Deeper Problems?

Most everyone has stolen in their lifetime, but when is it kleptomania?

Dec. 5, 2011— -- Anand, a 24-year-old public relations professional, keeps a dirty little secret -- his parents proudly fill their house with mementos from hotels and restaurants around the world. Though they are well-off financially, they rely on the five-finger discount.

"My mom has to do things the right way, but she enjoys what falls into the suitcase after they go on a trip," said Anand, who lives in Boston, but is too embarrassed to disclose his parent's home.

They started small: a few hotel shampoos and lotions, but it escalated. From there they moved on to corkscrews with insignia and expensive sandals.

"My mother was mortified when they were walking down the hotel hallway and he snatched things off the housekeeping cart," said Anand. "It was a real drive-by."

Psychological experts scratch their heads over why otherwise moral people steal. They say petty thieves are common and, with the downward economy in a holiday season, likely on the rise.

"People are looking for a little something for nothing where there is generalized anxiety about the economy," said Terrence Shulman, a therapist and founder of the Shulman Center for Compulsive Stealing, Spending and Hoarding in Franklin, Mich.

"For some people there is a rush of naughtiness," said Shulman.

"Life is rigged against fairness and everyone breaks the rules -- doing right is no longer what it once was."

Is it stealing or do some law-abiding folks have a kleptomaniacal side to their character?

"Sure it's stealing," said Ariel Kaminer, who is "The Ethicist" for The New York Times. "Even if the company expects it, and therefore factors that loss into its budget."

"Anyone who has ever stolen a packet of gum from the convenience store can tell you the thrill of it," she said. "But it's not fair to get your thrill out of someone else's pocket."

Shulman describes these "gray area behaviors" in his 2011 book, "Cluttered Lives, Empty Souls."

Unlike kleptomaniacs, who are compulsive, these people plan out their crimes. And they don't view it as shoplifting even though some hotel and restaurants do prosecute for larceny, according to Shulman.

"They are more deliberate--and are pretty moral, educated and well-to-do," selecting items that match their homes and showing off their booty to family and friends, he said.

Anand's stepfather is a real estate consultant who gets a "childish" thrill as his mother -- a doctor -- turns a blind eye.

They have hundreds of toiletries in their fancy home bathroom.

Their latest prize acquisitions are oriental silk shoe bags from the famed Mandarin Oriental hotel in Hong Kong. "They have a slew of them," he said.

Anand also confesses to wearing one of dozens of pairs of Brazilian Havaiana sandals that sell for $25 a pair. "We could open a small business we have so many," he said.

Sometimes those who pilfer the linens and china from an upscale restaurant rationalize that they have paid so much for the dinner, they deserve it. "They look for anything that goes wrong -- a waiter is rude or the fish isn't cooked enough," said Shulman.

Marie Moeggenberg, a 23-year-old graphic designer from Cincinnati, said she took linen napkins from a restaurant in Rome, "due to the ridiculous linen fees they charged."

Ethicist Kaminer said people justify theft by assuming the hotel "can afford it," but those costs are passed on to the traveler. She also dismisses the idea that stealing is a way to stick-it-to-the-man.

"If you are upset about the political clout of the modern corporation, stealing a bathrobe is not the effective way to address that, especially if you give that bathrobe to yourself."

Still, she concedes, "there are different moral stakes for taking an ashtray than snatching some sweet granny's purse."

Stealing for Fun and Sentiment

Some nick an item for sentimental reasons.

Steve, a 61-year-old CEO, says he took an ashtray from the Stanford Court Hotel in San Francisco 30 years ago because "it had my initials on it."

And Martha Chabinsky, a 58-year-old yoga teacher from New Hampshire, confesses she took a silver monogrammed teaspoon from Boston's venerable Locke-Ober restaurant on her wedding night.

"It's a nice reminder," she said. "I felt guilty at the time, but I had to have it. But that was the last thing I ever stole. As a yoga teacher, I learned there is more to stealing than the item taken -- in yoga there are rules for living."

Remorse is what differentiates the "atypical theft offender" from the "typical theft offender" or common thief, according to Will Cupchik, a Toronto psychologist and author of "Why Honest People Shoplift Or Commit Other Acts Of Theft."

Theft is "the occasional crime of the moral majority," said Cupchik.

But one of the "commonest mistakes" is to assume they do it for the thrill. The reasons, he said, are often unconscious and far more complex.

"Why would someone risk their job for a wine glass?" asked Cupchik. "Consciously, they may have done it for the thrill, but other psychological issues are going on."

In 1983 study that was published in a peer-reviewed journal, Cupchik and his colleagues concluded that those who steal had experienced some sort of loss. Often, they came from families touched by alcohol or drug abuse. A surprising 29 percent had cancer or were close to someone with the disease.

Sometimes offenders go for years without stealing, then something triggers the behavior -- a fight with a spouse, a sick child, loss of a promotion.

He concedes stealing from a restaurant or hotel may not be pathological, but asks, "Why does someone risk so much for so little?"

Anand, whose parents have plundered hotels around the world, asks the same question.

"I would draw the line at the silk shoe bags and my parents could afford the corkscrew," he said.

"On one level my step dad gets a childish kick out of it and thinks it's funny," said Anand. "But I think I would take the moral high ground. It's stealing, no matter what level."