Addicted to Stealing: Inside a Shoplifter's Mind

Inside the mind of a serial shoplifter.

July 10, 2007— -- This story originally aired on October 6, 2005.

In 2002, Paula Paine seemed to be on top of the world. She was the toast of the Houston social scene…and with good reason.

She was beautiful and brilliant -- a former model who had worked three years at the White House. Her husband, Jeff, was a successful Houston businessman who adored her. "She was a superstar as far as I was concerned," he said.

They were starting a family, with three small children and a fancy house in one of Houston's toniest neighborhoods. It should have been the happiest time of Paine's life. But on the inside, she was in turmoil. She was living a double life.

Whenever Paine had a difficult day, she turned to a shameful habit. It was not drugs or alcohol or another man. To make herself feel better, she shoplifted.

There was no obvious reason why Paine would do so: She had plenty of money, and an arrest would tarnish her carefully polished public image.

Yet she continued…until she was caught doing something so humiliating that it shoved her right out of the Houston social scene.

Brain Scans

Paine's tale is not entirely unfamiliar. For example, after actress Winona Ryder was arrested for shoplifting at the Saks in Beverly Hills in 2001, many asked what could drive a wealthy actress to risk it all for goods she could clearly afford.

More recently, media reports revealed that Jennifer Wilbanks, the "Runaway Bride," was arrested three times for shoplifting – on each occasion for items valued at less than $100.

Psychiatrists are finding new scientific evidence that shoplifting, like gambling or liquor, can truly be an addiction: a repetitive, compulsive and extraordinarily self-destructive behavior.

"They look the same as you and I, and they will live their lives morally and legally in every other aspect," said Jon Grant, a psychiatrist at the University of Minnesota. But, he added, their brains are different.

Grant, who has studied kleptomania for almost nine years years, showed "Primetime" two pictures that demonstrate how the brains of kleptomaniacs differ from the normal brain.

The nerve track fibers in the front of the brain were not as dense in the brains of kleptomaniacs as they were in normal brains.

The front is the "part of the brain that tells us essentially not to do things," Grant said. "It puts brakes on behavior, even when we want to do things.

Out of Control

That was apparently the case with Paine…she had no brakes.

Her first experience stealing was on a ski trip with some girlfriends. "I took a pair of ski sunglasses, because I felt somehow that if I had the nicest ski sunglasses, they would think better of me," she said.

Over the next three years, her thefts escalated in frequency and price. She not only stole from stores, she stole from friends as well.

Stealing helped her get rid of anxiety, Paine said. "But then I would get home and have so much fear of, 'Am I going to get caught…who, who, who saw me? I can't believe I did this, I hurt this shop owner.'"

So she knew what she was doing was wrong, but couldn't stop. By the time the first warning shot rang through her life, she had learned to lie as well.

"I was arrested at Lord & Taylor," she recalled. "I admired a sweater, put it on top of the stroller. I could say, 'Oh it's not concealed, it's just right here on top of the stroller.'"

When Paine was caught, security didn't believe her excuse. "It was one of the worst experiences I've ever had in my life," she said. "And I risked everything for a sweater that I could afford."

But that was hardly the end.

The National Association of Shoplifting Prevention says one out of every 11 Americans -- some 23 million people -- shoplifts. Every day, $25 million is lost to retail theft. The stores are fighting back by installing more (and more sophisticated) surveillance equipment. Some have cameras so sophisticated they can zoom in on a watch and read the time from 20 feet away. But sometimes, that isn't enough to stop the best shoplifters.

Public Embarrassment

The haul that finally brought Paine's stealing habit to an end was much more brazen than the typical store theft.

She had been on a jog through her neighborhood when she noticed there was a house under construction. When she went inside, she found furniture that had not been unpacked yet. She came back with her car, loaded it in and brought it back to her house to use.

Within six months, Paine and her husband put their house on the market, with the furniture still inside.

They held an open house, and one of the people who came to visit was the neighbor from whom she stole the furniture. The neighbor recognized the furniture, and told Paine's husband.

He was surprised. Paine was sick with embarrassment -- the news "spread like wildfire," she said.

But now Paine also calls that day "the best day of her life." The news allowed her to drop the pretense that she was perfect; she felt like she could finally ask for help.

Taking Responsiblity

Paine said her shoplifting itself was, in a way, a cry for help. As she got more and more desperate, her stealing got more and more brazen.

When she received help, Paine was forced to confront the emotions that triggered her urge to steal.

She said she had been in denial of her father's departure when she was 3, and more recently, a brother's suicide. She said she had been "moving forward and not dealing with what was right there in front of me."

But Paine insists she was not offering an excuse for bad behavior. She wanted relief, she said, "and shoplifting temporarily relieved it."

Grant and other psychiatrists say some shoplifters are actually self-medicating when they steal. "I think as we learn more about the biology of shoplifting addiction that it will be more accepted as an actual illness," he said.

And if it's an illness, that means it can be treated like other addictions -- with therapy, daily reminders and 12-step programs, like the ones that Paine attended weekly. Part of the healing process was taking responsibility for her addiction, and she says that she returned everything that she stole.

"I'm not pointing fingers and blaming anybody. It was me," she said. "Now I'm showing everyone. I just want them to know that there is so much shame affiliated with this addiction. But there's so much hope."

More Information on Shoplifting
At the National Society for Shoplifting Prevention Web site, you can fill out a profile to see if you are potentially a "shoplifting addict" and need to seek treatment.
Get online support and find out if there is a support group near you.
A professional treatment program for problem stealing behavior.

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