inside tumblr’s teen shoplifting rings
A community of anonymous high schoolers is raiding malls across the country and blogging about it. Who are they?
"Is it easy to steal body sprays from vs?" asks dollfacedlifter in a Tumblr post, using a common shoplifter abbreviation of "Victoria's Secret." "I've never tried, but I took a perfume so the sprays should be easier too!!" replies lifting-cutie. She recommends going to Bath & Body Works instead though: "It's like a buffet in there."
In April 2014, a Tumblr user named weunhallowed (account since disabled) published a list of Tumblr accounts operated by what she called "Tumblr's Bling Ring." They were, allegedly, the crème de la crème of an online community of shoplifters. Soon after, Jezebel reported the leak and the news went viral.
The community was shaken. Tumblr took down pages that seemed to show obvious criminal activity. Some members immediately changed their screen names to avoid getting caught. But others were proud. One user wrote, "i just realized that the post called us tumblrs bling ring and i'm even more flattered. i'm famous. for free." And several lifters even complained that they hadn't been included on the list. Like any clique, the Tumblr shoplifting community is a coalition formed through a strong sense of community and fierce competition.
Over a year later, the community is alive and well again. How is it still functioning, and what drives its members to openly boast about their illegal activities on the internet?
It goes without saying that no one is blogging about stealing thousands of dollars worth of bath bombs and lace crop tops using the names their parents gave them. (A representative sample of screen names: spunkythrifter, liftingcuteshit, toocutetopay, mrsliftsalot and princessklepto.) And profile images are either selfies shot from the chin down, Bitmoji avatars, or, occasionally, images of Winona Ryder. But, after news of the community broke, many users chose to take further security measures, adding disclaimers promising that their exploits are "fictional" or "role-play," in an attempt to establish legal immunity.
It's impossible to count how many active shoplifting pages there are on Tumblr. But the number is more than enough to send you down an internet rabbit hole for a week and less than enough to provoke a serious criminal investigation (at least, so far). The other reason these sites fly under the radar of the authorities is that whereas the teen reprobates immortalized in Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring stole $10,000 Birkins from Paris Hilton's house, Tumblr lifters are taking home $10 Urban Decay lip glosses, Lululemon leggings, and slogan T-shirts from Aéropostale. They're looting junior brands at the mall, not Barneys.
The proof is in their haul photos. These are still lifes of contraband that usually include nail polishes, barrettes and Victoria's Secret underwear, shot on cell phones and posted on lifters' pages. The composition itself is part of the competition. User smokeyandthebandit shared this much reblogged quote: "Low key setting up your haul for a haul post is harder than actually lifting the stuff in your haul." When liftliketheresnolp reposted it, they added, "I feel this so much. The lighting in my house sucks, so I've been taking pics in my car and it looks so sloppy [sad face emoji]."
Often, lifters also post a full inventory of the stolen product, with prices. Not that all lifters see what they do as theft. User boosterpackace (bio: "Lifter, grifter, baby boy. Genderfluid 22.") writes that they've "saved ~5k" since May. Spunkythrifter ("18. Scorpio.") has "saved" $4,100 this year. And liftliketheresnolp claims she's "saved" $38,612 over her career. In some Tumblr shoplifters' minds, what they do is a hack; it's about saving money rather than stealing goods.
Others are proud to own their illegal activities. Stealingyoupretty's bio reads "14 y/o little feminist Canadian bby ready to break the law." And, in one post, liftinglight identifies as "a damn criminal." The most striking thing about reading through lifters' bios, though, is that they are nearly all under 21. And, like any teens on Tumblr, they're surprisingly open about their personal lives and beliefs. Self-descriptions include star signs, music tastes ("alternative/edm/hip hop") and sexual orientations ("demisexual," "bi," "bi-curious"). And, interspersed among the haul photos, are reblogged quotes about feminism, racial equality and the evils of Donald Trump.
According to their bios, most lifters are high school age. And Tumblr teens are Tumblr teens whether they're stealing or not. They're looking for a place to try out new identities, express opinions and find acceptance and community. Not only are they trading tips about how to use magnets to disarm security tags, they're sharing life advice.
Last month, an 18-year-old with the handle luxsteals wrote, "I move into my dorm in ten days and start my classes a few days after that, so basically do any of you fellow lifters have any tips for college freshmen?" She admitted she was nervous and didn't have any friends on campus yet. Shoplifting Tumblr is filled with messages like this. In October, after sharing a tested method for stealing designer purses, user istoleandrewtori posted about moving to a new town, and stumbling across the Tumblr community: "I can honestly say I'm so PLEASANTLY surprised at how friendly and welcoming everyone was [...] It's also truly awesome to see so many people with similar interests." She signed off, "thank you everyone for being a friend :')."
When I ask Terry Shulman, an addiction therapist and the founder of The Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft, Spending & Hoarding, about what motivates teenagers to shoplift, he confirms that "probably most of them are vulnerable" and seeking community. But he also credits a recent rise in shoplifting to something specific to millennials: "a pressure to be number one." Millennials, he says, want to have the best of everything (regardless of their spending money), and the competition to outdo one another is stronger than ever.
Shulman admits stealing is an age-old form of acting out. (As a former shoplifter himself, he now understands his habit as a way of channeling adolescent anger.) But today's generation of teenagers, he argues, are uniquely susceptible. He emphasizes the media's villainization of large retail chains, which perfectly positions them as targets for what many lifters see as victimless crimes (harleyandivy-lift: "Don't tell me I can't steal from million dollar companies that steal from you."). And most of all, he credits social media and online culture. The internet, he says, "was made for addiction."
But as long as there are teenagers and blind spots in Sephora CCTV cameras, there will be shoplifting. Even if Tumblr decides to police its pages as the media continues to cover its "Bling Ring," sites will likely continue to pop up as quickly as they're disabled. The real problem is not the internet, it's ingenious kids with PacSun allowances and Prada dreams.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson