Eighteen-year-old Lucy* started shoplifting around a year ago, when she wanted a necklace that she couldn’t afford. “I just ripped the packaging off and stuck it in my pocket. I hadn’t really planned it out or anything,” she explains.
Lucy’s honesty might come as a shock, but she regularly informs 30,000 people about her stealing habit via @ferretsborrowing, a TikTok account she runs. What started out as a way to share a glittery PowerPoint she made for a friend on how to shoplift is now part of what is known as “Borrowing TikTok”.
The “borrowing” community is made up of anonymous accounts, primarily run by teens with voice changer effects, who bond over their love of five-finger discounts, share hauls and how-to videos. It’s essentially The Bling Ring meets Anonymous.
“I mostly get questions about what’s easiest to borrow, where’s easiest to borrow from, how to avoid cameras and security, taking off security tags,” explains Lucy. “Mostly things beginners want to know so they don’t get arrested.”
This isn’t the first online community of shoplifters. In 2014, a Tumblr user “outed” a relatively smaller group of accounts that were also detailing their hauls and tips. But according to those involved, Borrowing TikTok is about more than just teaching people how to steal stuff. It’s pointedly rooted in politics.
Sixteen-year-old Destiny, who’s behind the 25,000-follower strong @borrowingguid3, first heard of capitalism around the age of 13, and remembers thinking about how unfair it is that big corporations control trade instead of local businesses. Back then, the teenager didn’t recognise this as Socialism 101, but now knows that she dislikes capitalism and believes she can do something about it – even if shoplifting is illegal.
The borrowing community is mainly US-based – Lucy and Destiny are both Americans – with teens from wealthier countries like the UK and Australia joining in. They exclusively steal from large chain stores, an act they encourage with the community catchphrase: “If it’s a chain, it’s free reign.”
“We have so many companies that don’t care about their customers, only making money,” says Destiny. “If we can punish the corporation, we feel we have done our best.”
They evaluate a company’s politics when deciding whether to steal from them. If they’re unsure of the answer regarding their favourite shop, they’ll probably find it on the #borrowingtips tag, which has more than 95 million views. “We wanna really make them hurt more than companies that aren’t as problematic,” says Lucy.
The community’s evil-by-association style logic makes Victoria’s Secret just as much a target for their chief marketing officer’s transphobic comments in 2018, as a chain store whose right-wing founder donates to anti-LGBTQ groups.
This is where cracks begins to show in their ideology: an outwardly regressive senior member of staff doesn’t mean the company in question mistreats their staff. Is an entire company homophobic, sexist or racist? It can be difficult to call, but these teens are confident in calling it.
Although Lucy tells me that the anti-capitalism aspect is just an added benefit for her, it’s the whole point for some. Destiny tells me that she “borrowed” pet supplies from a chain pet store thought to mistreat animals and donated them to a local shelter just the other week.
Most of the items stolen by Gen Z are relatively cheap, usually no more than £20. Rachel Shteir, author of The Theft: A Cultural History of Shoplifting, writes that razor blades are one of the most commonly stolen items as people resent having to pay such high prices for what is essentially just a piece of metal and plastic.
Terrence Shulman, an ex-shoplifter who runs a treatment centre in Michigan for shoplifting addiction, says that he understands the premise of stealing to get back at the system, but explains that stores generally bump up the prices of all items to account for shoplifting losses.
“I'm not saying that the corporations don't deserve some kind of accountability,” he says, “but what really scares me is a lot of these people are going to end up actually making the prices higher.”
The mindset growing on TikTok reflects real generational change. A 2020 YouGov report revealed that stealing from large businesses is viewed as more acceptable, and that two in five young people say “deliberate shoplifting is acceptable under certain circumstances”.
For sociology lecturer Dan Mercea, what stands out about the TikTok community is their offline activity, in contrast to most online-only clicktivism. “These guys are taking their ideas and then putting them into practice in their everyday lives, and then re-coming back onto social media and sharing what they've done in their environment,” he says. “There's this organic growth that's actually fed by this.”
In other words, they’re growing a self-perpetuating movement that believes it is tackling the system – albeit illegally – both virtually and IRL. But what about if it becomes more than just shoplifting the odd trinket from high street retailers?
Shulman, who has first-hand experience of how easy it is to fast track from ethical shoplifter to full-blown kleptomaniac, warns there is a risk you can get addicted to shoplifting. “It might start off as a thrill, it might start off as you're very driven to make a point or get back at the system,” he says, “but before you know it because addictions can spread like wildfire, all of a sudden you are stealing from a small store.”
Although Destiny’s “chain stores only” ethos is still very much alive, she admits to me that she feels she is addicted to the rush of shoplifting and now has the urge to do it a few times a week.
Regardless of differences within the community, these teens are certain of one thing: TikTok lets them be seen as more than just thoughtless shoplifters. Taking pairs of earrings off multi-packs in Topshop was a real coming of age moment for me, although admittedly it was just because I only liked the silver ones in the pack rather than an attempt to piss off Phillip Green. In 2020, teens can get those kicks, all while spreading an anti-capitalist message to a whole generation, one For You page at a time.