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One explanation for why people shoplift

The confessions and true stories of shoplifters are astonishing — smart, successful individuals for whom shoplifting is part of their everyday lives.

For example, there’s the case of a married mom from California, a former high school valedictorian who’s well-educated and a tireless volunteer for charities. She's also a compulsive shoplifter. She says it isn’t unusual for her to take $300 worth of items in a day. And she doesn't want or need what she steals. For instance, she takes coffee from Starbucks and gives it to people on the street because she doesn’t like coffee.

That woman's case is not out of the ordinary. The National Retail Federation says shoplifting costs U.S. businesses approximately $11 billion in lost retail sales annually. What’s going on here?

What is kleptomania?

Some shoplifters might be suffering from kleptomania.

Kleptomania, according to the Mayo Clinic, is the recurring desire to steal items that you don’t want, combined with the inability to resist the urge. Mayo’s website says, “Kleptomania is a type of impulse control disorder — a disorder that's characterized by problems with emotional or behavioral self-control.”

Kleptomania facts

Here are nine facts about kleptomania:

1. Kleptomania was first used as a psychiatric diagnostic term in 1838, according to a 2004 study that was published by the National Institutes of Health. 

2. There’s no cure for kleptomania, although it often is treated with a combination of medication and psychotherapy, according to the Mayo Clinic.

3. Kleptomaniacs seldom use the items they steal, the Mayo Clinic says. The individual might store the items, give them away or return them to the store where they were taken.

4. Many who struggle with kleptomania have strong ethical codes, according to Jon Grant, a leading kleptomania researcher. He says kleptomaniacs tell him they don’t want to steal, but they have to.

5. Kleptomania isn’t well understood, but research conducted at Brown University says the brain chemistry of a kleptomaniac is similar to that of other addicts. Why a person becomes a specific type of addict isn’t known.

6. The causes of kleptomania and the causes of eating disorders appear to be similar, according to Stanford University researchers.

7. Risk factors for kleptomania include family history, brain injury and — perhaps — being female. Two-thirds of all known kleptomaniacs are female, according to the Mayo Clinic.

8. Kleptomania might be linked to brain chemistry and serotonin, which helps regulate mood and emotions. "Low levels of serotonin are common in people prone to impulsive behaviors," the Mayo Clinic says.

9. The 2004 study published by the National Institutes of Health concluded that three things are needed to combat kleptomania: awareness of kleptomania, empathy toward those who have it and "rigorous research into treatment options."

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3900 University Drive, Suite 320
Fairfax, VA 22030
Phone: 703-539-5825
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