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A Child Is Shoplifting, Do You Speak Up?

What would you do if you saw a little girl stealing clothes in a boutique?

ByABC News
February 23, 2009, 3:14 PM

Feb. 24, 2009— -- 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?