The incompetence of thieves

I investigate self-reported theft data in the NLSY 1997 Cohort for the years 1997–2011. Several striking patterns emerge. First, individuals appear to be active thieves for extremely short periods – in most cases in only one year, and fewer than 5% of thieves for more than three years out of the 15 years of data. Second, self-reported earnings from theft are generally very low and there is little evidence of “successful” criminals or consistent earnings from theft. Third, measures that proxy impatience (smoking, for example) are highly correlated with theft. Fourthly, thieves and non-thieves have similar earnings during the years of peak theft activity, but thieves have lower earnings in their late 20s (after most have long since stopped committing theft). Attrition of survey respondents, underreporting and incapacitation effects do not appear to explain this. There may be “professional thieves” too rare to show up in even large samples such as the NLSY. Theft in the United States thus appears to be substantially a phenomenon of individuals entering a temporary period of intensified risk-taking in adolescence.

That is from a new Geoffrey Fain Williams paper in JEBO, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.  Kevin also links to new evidence that concealed carry laws are orthogonal to crime rates.


Perhaps people sophisticated enough to be successful thieves are also sophisticated enough to realize that there is zero upside to reporting your professional success on a survey.

Criminal masterminds are a lot more common in movies than in real life. But there are some competent ones. A friend of mine was a very highbrow database architect. His brother was a quite successful silverware thief in Chicago's wealthy North Shore suburbs. When he got arrested after about a decade, a whole bunch of local police chiefs crowded onto a stage to jointly announce on TV that they'd finally caught him. I think they claimed he'd committed 1100 burglaries.

Stephen J. Dubner wrote about a silver thief on the East Coast:

Okay, I found a new story about the Flatware Burglar of the North Shore. I'll XXX out his name because his brother is a nice guy:

318 Suburban Thefts Linked To City Man
October 30, 1994 | By Lou Carlozo, Tribune Staff Writer.

To the scores of North Shore residents who have agonized over their stolen silverware and tea services, take heart-and call Evanston police.

Police have arrested a suspect in heists by the "flatware burglar" and have seized thousands of dollars worth of jewelry, dinnerware and decorative items stashed in his North Side residence.

Investigators have linked XXX to 318 burglaries over a two-year period in Evanston, Wilmette, Winnetka, Kenilworth and Glencoe, Evanston Police Chief Gerald Cooper said Saturday.

In all, XXX may have been responsible for more than 1,000 home burglaries in the North Shore area, Cooper said.

"He boasted to us that he committed some 5,000 burglaries" over two decades, Cooper said. "There's a little bit of (exaggeration) in that, but he's done a substantial amount."

Evanston Police Sgt. Chuck Wernick alleged that XXX was by far the most prolific home burglar he has encountered in 23 years of police work.

"Very clever, very catlike would be the best way to describe him," Wernick said.

"Once we knew where he was," Wernick said, "he was just as difficult to track down. He was just a shadow."

XXX total alleged take is believed to be in the "hundreds of thousands of dollars," including $30,000 in merchandise taken from one night of activity in Wilmette, Wernick said.

XXX was arrested with the help of a task force made up of more than a dozen officers from the four suburbs that had been investigating the thefts over the past four months, Cooper said.

Officers said that on the evening of Oct. 22 they saw a suspect on a bicycle near the scene of a burglary in northwest Evanston. The suspect fled before officers could detain him, police said, but he left behind a backpack that police said helped them break the case.

Cooper said the backpack that contained take from an alleged burglary and five Chicago traffic tickets with xxx's's name and address printed on them.

Doesn't seem that clever to me.

There are a few professional thieves that are very good, one guy in DC that stole millions, the guy in the east coast that specialized in colonial antiques, and the guy Steve Sailor mentions. But most are indeed amateurs.

Yes, he made a mistake. Finally, after years of successful crime. It was only this mistake that led to his arrest by the generally incompetent police. Of course, the cops might well have planted the evidence anyway, as they often do.

There's an old saying among police. "Criminals have to get lucky every time, we only have to get lucky once."

Frankly we should put this man's skills to good.

Offer to pardon his crimes if he a) repays the crimes he's inflicted on innocents and b) assists the police/etc. in catching types of criminals or failing that traiting agencies in infiltration tactics.

Several hundred burglaries per perp is pretty typical and borne out with anecdotal evidence. When DNA evidence was used to catch one pair of burglars in my neighborhood, the overall neighborhood burglary rate declined by more than 50%.

There's no professional thieves for the same reason there's no professional pickpockets any longer. The risk reward is way way better in identity theft and hacking.

That being said, lockpicking is extremely easy and most people can pick it up in less than 24 hours of practice.

It's hard for young people today to grasp just how common it was in the 1980s to have your car window smashed by a thief. In 1988 I bought a bottom-of-the-line Honda Accord specifically to not have a radio in it because I was tired of getting my window smashed by thieves looking for a stereo. My wife got tired of not having any music in the car, so she bought a $10 transistor radio. Within a week, a thief had smashed the car window and stolen the stupid radio, for which a fence probably gave him about a dollar.

Same era I had an MG B that I never locked so thieves wouldn't cut through the top. I still would find cuts about every nine months or so.

Jeeze. I have an MGB. Even if it's locked. The top is so loose fitting that you can easily get your hand between the window and the top. Thats' some pretty unambitious theives they used to have in the old days...

In the early 2000s I lived in Canary Wharf and every weekend morning would run through Wapping. There was never a time when I didn't see at least one car with a shattered window.

Nice neighbourhoid but it's very close to Tower Hamlets.

Just got a flashback of seeing cars with a hand-written note saying "No Radio in Car" posted on the window.

Don't know if true but someone told me their friend in Boston used to get rid of their garbage bags by simply putting it in the back of their pickup before work. During the day someone would inevitably take their garbage.

I live in Baltimore where even in the better neighborhoods theft is the municipal pastime (maybe they offer classes in it at the high schools?) Anything not nailed down, red hot or weighing a ton will be stolen if left out. It's an easy way to get rid of junk: just set it outside. I disposed of a defunct lawn mower that way, and of several old and dilapidated pieces of furniture. If something doesn't get taken, then you may be certain that it is indeed total and utter garbage. (And heck, they even steal garbage cans here!)

A few months ago, I spoke with a guy in East Oakland who collects junk and sells antiques. (Sort of.) He's got two project cars on his front lawn. He said that not everything left out front will get stolen, but if you really need to get rid of it, put a "for sale" sign on it - then the local scavengers will think it's worth something.

plausible today, but less so in 1997, when the data begins

The potential labor pool for pickpocketing and the potential labor pool for identity theft and hacking have little overlap.

It’s hard for young people today to grasp just how common it was in the 1980s to have your car window smashed by a thief. -

Hard to grasp because most of us had the sense to stay out of Chicago.

Same era I had an MG B that I never locked so thieves wouldn't cut through the top. I still would find cuts about every nine months or so. In suburban Wilmington Delaware.

Don't know how common this is today, but I twice had radios stolen from (unlocked) cars in the 00s. The second time neighbors saw it happen, called the cops, and I got the radio back as the meth-heads who did the theft were on the next block stealing another radio.

That CCW may be orthogonal to crime rates doesn't mean there's no effect, i.e., this:

I'm a fan of CCW, but I doubt the deterrent effect of widespread CCW use can be pulled from crime stats. Maybe compare mugging rates between NYC and Austin? But Austin really isn't in the same "walking city" league as NYC.

Is there ANY "walking city" where CCW is common? Only Prague comes to mind...

That said, I'm pretty sure firearms ownership rates (in the suburban/rural USA) deter robberies, especially the home-invasion type when someone is home. I've noticed that Canadian media tend to market market home-invasion speaking alarms. I don't think I've ever heard such an ad in the US.

Um, home invasions happen in the US too. No one can stay awake 24/7, and how many people have a family member standing guard all night? If thieves get in at night when everyone is fast asleep all the guns in the world are useless.

Hindawi ..? I'll just say this: all publications are not equal.

"In contrast, drug dealing seems to be more common, dealer careers are more long lived, and more of the activity appears to be by individuals who specialize as dealers"

"Adolescence (broadly defined to include the early 20s) is a period where sensitivity to general social norms is low, while peer judgments are particularly biting"

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Doesn't the CCW usually come well after they are legal to possess, but not carry?
I think odds of running into someone (during a crime) with a CCW is far less than someone with one in their home.

I'd guess all the crime reducing effects are from them being legal in the years before CCw is legal.

I wonder what the correlation is between concealed carry laws and total gun violence including accidental injuries? Does 'crime' in this study count the guy who got into an argument, felt threatened, and shot the person he was arguing with?

Thieves. When I bought my shop building after a long career in software, I expected "threats" the same sorts of highly sophisticated attacks we we faced in the world of software.

Instead, it's the sorts of people who steal manhole covers. Really. Scrap value less than the cost of the calories consumed hauling it away, but many times higher cost to me to replace it (with a bolt down frame to thwart further such nonsense.)

The thermodynamics are such that noone can make a living stealing manhole covers.... But people do it.....

How much is a manhole worth at the black market?

In round numbers a manhole cover weighs 300 pounds. In round numbers a white market scrap iron is worth 3 cents a pound. A white market used manhole cover is worth about $9. A black market manhole cover is probably on the order of $2-$5 each, assuming 44%-77% discount for black market status. Thus, you need to steal and fence about 2-4 manhole covers an hour to match minimum wage, but with far more risk involved.

I bet this is more evidence that many people in the USA work for less that minimum wage.

Most criminals are idiots.

Any public defender can tell you that.

Any prosecutor can tell you that too. I'm quite certain criminals have a hidden desire to get caught. They often confess at the first opportunity.

Criminals who aren't idiots are wealthy enough to not be eligible for a public defender's services.

As a prosecutor, I had the rare privilege of being able to carry a concealed weapon in Chicago. I never exercised the privilege at home, and seldom exercised it at work.

The NRA might be convinced that more guns lower crime, but I think it's clear that places where crime is low has more effective crime prevention and fewer opportunities for it.

The latter proposition of this paper is more interesting. More guns, in and of itself, do not cause crime. People can generally be trusted with guns. This is why a nation with about 50 million gun owners and 300 million guns doesnt have 50,000 murders a year. The will to kill is not prevalent in our society, except for isolated demographic groups where societal norms have evaporated.

All the reasearch Ive seen, though, finds that population density is the leading explanator for nearly every major social ill. As Sartre said, Hell is other people.

IQ and criminality.

Bear in mind that smart criminals are less likely to be caught. Such studies select for the incompetent.

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