A Pandemic of Pilferage // Honesty isn’t the human default

On a social media post, a young woman cautions: “Be careful. They banned my entire address for doing this.”

“This,” was her falsely telling the online shopping giant Amazon that her order hadn’t arrived, in order to take advantage of the c

ompany’s refund policy for cases of undelivered or stolen goods.
The woman slyly looks at the package she claimed she never received, and an accompanying caption references billionaire Amazon chief Jeff Bezos, “Jeff aint gon miss this lil $39.99 order, according to forbes he good.” (Translation: “Mr. Bezos won’t be greatly affected by my theft; according to Forbes, he is a billionaire many times over.”)

No one knows the extent of such fraud, most of which certainly happens without the criminals bragging about their crimes publicly. Shoplifting, too, is on the rise across the country, and has been for the past five years. In New York, the police department says it hasn’t seen shoplifting levels like the current one since 1995.

At the other end of the country, the Target department store in downtown Seattle has been plundered by shoplifters, with one staff member claiming that such theft happens “about every 10 minutes.”

A local observer described how a staff member escorted a woman who had placed clothes in her bag to a security officer, who forced the shoplifter to pull the stolen clothes from her bag. Security officers simply led the woman out of the store as she shouted insults at them.


It has been reported that organized criminal outfits have taken advantage of the brazen willingness of citizens to steal items off store shelves by offering them set payments for whatever things they can manage to sweep into their bags or backpacks during a “shopping” trip. The syndicate then resells the goods online.

It might seem logical to attribute the pandemic of theft to the one involving a virus, considering the toll it has taken on some people’s incomes and mental health. But the rise in shoplifting and other fraud predates COVID and doesn’t seem to be related to it.

Alternatively, one might relate the disregard for others’ property to the steady growth in the percentage of Americans who shun religious affiliation, up from 19% in 2011 to 29%.

These “nones,” the catchall word for a host of groups, including atheists, agnostics, humanists and secularists, insist that they consider themselves bound by ethical and moral imperatives.

But of course, without acceptance of a Higher Authority, they have only their own judgments (and, consciously or not, self-interests) to guide them. And, like the Amazon embezzler above, they can “justify” thievery with righteous indignation at the wealth of those from whom they steal. Bezos and Target are fair game for looting. Who gave them the right to have such formidable assets?

Of course, the Torah considers larceny from the loaded to be as forbidden as pilfering from a pushkah; and stealing from a company or government to be as wrong as from one’s neighbor. But, without acceptance of a divine command to be meticulously honest, where there’s a will, a way will often be found to assuage a conscience that deserves to be disturbed.

And, conversely, the realization that we are beholden to something more than ourselves should yield painstaking honesty.

The Shafran home needed some major repairs recently, and an observant Jewish contractor was engaged for the task. When the job was done, the contractor tidied up the garage where an assortment of construction materials had been stored. He plugged a vacuum cleaner into an electrical socket to suction up any remaining small debris and dust.

During that final part of the clean-up process, I received a call from the young man. “My van, which is parked in your driveway, is a real mess,” he said, “and it could use a good vacuuming,”

“Would it be okay,” he continued, “if I used your electricity for a few minutes for that?”
I laughed and happily granted him the pennies’ (if that) worth of juice. But the fact that he had asked wasn’t lost on me.

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