Crimes Against Property

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Crimes Against Property

Crimes against property are crimes of theft where no force or threat of force is directed toward an individual. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program as reported in Crime in the United States, 2002, thefts known as property crimes include "the offenses of burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson." Burglary involves the unlawful entry into a structure, such as a home or building, to steal something. Larceny-xtheft is the unlawful taking of property, but does not involve unlawful entry. Motor vehicle theft not only includes stealing automobiles but other vehicles such as motorcycles and snowmobiles. Arson, though not a theft crime, is a crime against property that involves the intentional burning of a structure. All statistics in this chapter are from the UCR Program's Crime in the United States.

Crimes against property are usually motivated by financial gain. Going back in history for many centuries, thievery was very common. Travelers on the European continent and in England were often preyed upon by everyone from poor peasants to noblemen down on their luck. Soldiers and warriors took what they pleased as they traveled through rural farms and villages. Another form of everyday thievery was killing wild animals in the royal forests or taking livestock that belonged to the royal families.

By the time English and European settlers arrived in America in the seventeenth century, cities in the Old World such as London and Paris were large and crowded with many poor people. In both cities, gangs were organized to carry out planned heists or robberies. Pickpocketing (stealing from someone's pockets) became a skilled career. By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, laws against theft were being developed in England and Europe. Those laws defined theft in mostly the same way it is today in the United States.

Crimes of theft remain common throughout the United States in the twenty-first century. The UCR reported 10,450,893 property crimes in 2002, or one every three seconds. In addition, many more property crimes occur but go unreported to law enforcement agencies. Most thieves are not career criminals, they do not think of themselves as part of the criminal element of society. Most have another source of income apart from their occasional acts of theft.

The category of larceny-theft includes shoplifting, stealing credit cards, and knowingly writing "bad" checks (paying by check when there is no money in an account to cover the purchases). Most thieves carry out these criminal actions only occasionally or on the spur of the moment, responding to an opportunity where items are left unsecured, for a thrill, or sometimes because they lack money for a real need. They generally think of their theft as harmless, since in most cases no one is physically harmed. Police often hear a car thief say he was only borrowing the car for a short time. The UCR Program reported in 2002 that approximately 30 percent of property crimes were carried out by youth less than eighteen years of age. A few of these youngsters may become career criminals but most will not.

The United States also has a population of skilled professional thieves who make their livings from burglary, larceny, and car theft. Although much smaller in number than occasional thieves, professional thieves are responsible for considerable financial loss.

Overall in 2002, Americans had $16.6 billion of goods stolen. Burglary accounted for $3.3 billion, larceny-theft $4.9 billion, and motor vehicle theft $8.4 billion. The average dollar loss per reported arson offense was $11,253.


The UCR Program defines burglary as "the unlawful entry of a structure to commit a felony (serious crime) or theft." UCR further subdivides burglary into three categories: forcible entry, accounting for about 63 percent of total burglaries; unlawful entry where no force is used, about 30 percent of burglaries; and attempted forcible entry, for about 6.5 percent of burglaries.

Forcible entry, for example, would be getting into a locked house by breaking a window or door. Force is not directed against a victim but against the structure. The fact that an intruder breaks into a private home, however, puts the home's occupants into a threatening, potentially dangerous situation. For this reason burglary is considered a more serious crime than larceny-theft.

Unlawful entry where no force is used could involve walking into an unlocked house or opening an unlocked tool shed for the purpose of stealing items. This middle category of burglary removes force as a required factor for a charge of burglary. An example of attempted forcible entry is simply an unsuccessful attempt to force one's way into a locked structure.

There are different levels of seriousness for a burglary charge. The most serious kind involves forcefully breaking into an occupied home during the night. The least serious burglary offense involves a daytime unlawful and unforced entry into a commercial building or structure that does not have occupants.

Criminal studies show that burglars often have drug habits they support with their activities. Burglars also frequently engage in larceny-theft related activities like shoplifting and may have a history of assault. Approximately one-third of burglaries are carried out by juveniles under the age of eighteen years old. A need for money to buy drugs is the most common motive. These youthful burglars often break into homes and apartment complexes in poor neighborhoods hoping to find cash. While many burglaries are carried out without much planning or forethought, successful, skilled burglars often go through an apprentice-like stage of building their burglary careers.

Professional burglars, those who make a living from burglary, often learn breaking and entering skills from others, such as relatives or friends. They must learn the technical skills of opening locked doors and windows, disarming alarm systems, avoiding video cameras, and opening safes without destroying the contents. These are all techniques learned from experienced burglars. Learning how to pick targets with high-priced goods is also an important part of successful burglaries.

Professionals often work in burglary rings or groups so although they are criminals, they must be able to work together, to organize as a dependable group, and delegate or assign various tasks. Various duties include observing a home or building to learn the habits of its occupants; finding the best locations and times for entry; possibly getting into the target ahead of time to decide which items to steal; the actual break in itself; transporting the stolen goods; and knowing escape routes. Successful professional burglars must also have regular fences for their goods. The term "fence" is frequently used to describe people who buy stolen property at prices below the normal retail price and then sell it for a profit.

Favorite commercial targets for professional burglars are retail stores where all preparation can be carried out by simply entering the store during business hours, checking the location of certain items, and finding if any alarms or anti-theft equipment is in use. A burglar may sometimes strike the same store several times. Favorite residential targets are upscale homes when occupants are away. Burglars will often pose as repair or maintenance workers to avoid neighborhood suspicion.

Neighborhood Watch

From 1930 to the early 1970s the nation's police departments took full responsibility for protecting communities and neighborhoods from crime. Private residents played little role in crime prevention. By the late 1960s, however, property and violent crimes began increasing at a dramatic rate. In 1965 U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973; served 1963–69) declared a "war on crime" and assembled the Crime Commission to guide the nation.

The commission urged American citizens to take a more active role in protecting themselves, primarily by installing more locks and alarms in their residences. In 1973 a national commission recommended an expanded role for citizens, such as forming citizen groups to organize and prevent crime in their neighborhoods. A well-known program to emerge from this effort was Neighborhood Watch.

Neighborhood Watch programs consist of residents who watch out for suspicious activity in their neighborhoods and notify the police if they spot criminal activity. The participants exchange phone numbers, receive training from local police officers, and learn how to report suspicious activity. Neighborhood Watch signs are posted in the area alerting potential criminals that a neighborhood alert system is in place. Local watch groups will often inspect their neighborhoods for ways to increase security. In some high crime neighborhoods, citizens expanded their vigilance to look for drug trafficking as well as property crimes.

These efforts were so successful nationally that, by the end of the twentieth century, 40 percent of Americans lived in communities with Neighborhood Watch programs. The majority of residents in Watch communities were active participants in their programs. Neighborhood Watch has become the largest crime prevention program in the nation, with more than fifty million people estimated to be involved.

National burglary statistics

The UCR Program reported an estimated 2,151,875 burglaries in 2002, or an overall U.S. burglary rate of 746.2 offenses per 100,000 residents. One burglary occurred every 14.7 seconds in 2002. Although this is a slight increase in the burglary rate of 2001, it represents a 13.5 percent decline from the burglary rate in 1998 and a 32.1 percent decline from the rate in 1993.

The highest burglary rates for 2002 occurred in U.S. cities. The overall city rate was 840.8 burglaries per 100,000 residents. Rural counties had an overall rate of 595.9 per 100,000 people. Large cities with populations between 500,000 and 999,999 recorded a rate of 1,213.6 burglaries per 100,000 residents. Small cities with populations between 10,000 and 24,999 had the lowest city burglary rate of 652.6 offenses per 100,000 residents. Residential home burglaries accounted for 65.8 percent of all burglaries with an average loss valued at $1,549. Commercial areas with stores and offices accounted for 34.2 percent with an average value loss of $1,678 per offense.

In 2002 of those arrested for burglary, 86.7 percent were males and 13.3 were females. Of all males arrested, 30.7 percent were juveniles younger than eighteen years of age. Of all females arrested, 25.3 percent were juveniles. White Americans accounted for 70.4 percent of all burglaries, black Americans 27.5 percent, and 2.1 percent were other races.


The UCR Program defines larceny-theft as the "unlawful taking, carrying, leading, or riding away of property from the possession . . . of another. It includes crimes such as shoplifting, picking pockets, purse snatching, thefts from motor vehicles, thefts of motor vehicle parts and accessories, bicycle thefts, etc., in which no use of force, violence, or fraud occurs." Fraud is to misrepresent or lie about facts in order to persuade a victim to give money or other property to the offender. Larceny-theft also includes intentionally writing bad checks and credit card theft.

Most U.S. states divide larceny-theft into two categories of seriousness: petit and grand larceny. Petit, or petty larceny, refers to small amounts of money or goods, usually $100 or less, and is punishable as a misdemeanor (minor crime) with fines or brief jail time. Grand larceny usually involves amounts of money or value over $100 and is punishable as a felony with longer jail or prison sentences. The most frequent larceny-theft crime, which accounts for about 26 percent of larcenies, involves stealing items out of motor vehicles.

A related kind of larceny-theft, making up about 11 percent of the larcenies, is stealing motor vehicle accessories such as air bags or sound systems. Air bags, which cost consumers upwards of $1,000 in 2003 to replace, are sold by thieves for $50 to $200. Another major larceny-theft category, accounting for 12.5 percent of larcenies, is the theft of items from company buildings such as office equipment, communication equipment, cameras, and tools. Picking pockets and purse snatching, while highly frustrating to victims, makes up only about 1 percent of larceny-theft crimes.


A common form of petty larceny is shoplifting, taking merchandise from a store without paying for it. Shoplifting accounted for about 14 percent of all larceny-thefts early in the twenty-first century. Shoplifting has been on the rise in the United States since the 1980s. Merchants lose an estimated 2 percent of total sales to shoplifting, but the exact dollar loss it difficult to determine. These losses are called "inventory shrinkage."

Only about 10 percent of shoplifters are professional shoplifters who intend to resell stolen goods for profit. Most are amateur shoplifters, known in thievery language as "snitches." Snitches take items such as clothing, cosmetics, jewelry, compact discs (CDs), cigarettes, grocery or pharmacy items, or hardware for their own personal use. Most plan ahead and bring large purses or bags in which to carry the stolen items. Snitches think what they do is harmless and do not consider themselves part of any criminal element in society. They generally shoplift only until they are caught; their first arrest is so traumatic that most snitches never shoplift again. Shoplifting tends to be at its highest levels among teenagers, then gradually lessens with age.

As the amount of money lost due to shoplifting increased for retail stores over the last part of the twentieth century, deterrent or prevention devices were developed. Electronic sensors, small plastic clips attached to clothing, became common in large clothing outlets. If a customer walked out of the store between electronic sensing monitors at door locations, the tag caused a loud beeping to alert store personnel. Sales clerks have special tools to remove the plastic tag when an item is purchased.

Credit Card Theft

In March 2004 the Montgomery, Alabama, police department arrested and charged an eighteen-year-old girl with credit card abuse (theft). The credit card was mistakenly left by a Montgomery woman at a gasoline station on December 21, 2003. She reported the loss to police.

The eighteen-year-old found the card and showed it to her boyfriend. The pair, along with a few other teens, charged more than $1,000 worth of purchases both in Montgomery and Houston, Texas, over the next several weeks.

Following the credit card trail, police pinpointed exact stores where the unlawful purchases were made. At least nine videotapes from the stores where the teens made purchases were obtained. The eighteen-year-old faced not only a charge of credit card theft (a misdemeanor or minor offense), but also a felony charge (major offense) of engaging in organized criminal activity. The felony charge stemmed from the use of the card by a number of individuals known to the teen.

If reported within a reasonable time period, credit card companies such as Visa and MasterCard as well as debit card issuers limit a victim's loss to $50. Losses to credit or debit card companies from credit card theft have been growing every year. In general, credit card thieves are amateurs but even amateurs can cause huge losses—especially if they use the Internet to steal card numbers. Stolen card numbers are usually used for two or three days then abandoned. Police agencies stress that victims must file a police report since most financial agencies, card companies, and credit reporting agencies require a police report to take action.

Some security tagging systems are built into the packaging or item itself during the manufacturing process. Another tactic used to deter shoplifting is physically attaching sample items to counters where the customer may observe them. A retail clerk must retrieve the item from a storage area when the customer is ready to purchase. This approach is used frequently for electronic items such as cameras or cell phones. Many states have a "merchant privilege law," allowing store officials to arrest suspected shoplifters on the spot if they have reasonable grounds. They may hold the offender for a short amount of time while awaiting law enforcement officers.

National larceny-theft statistics

The UCR Program reported an estimate of over seven million larceny-thefts in 2002. This number translates into an overall national larceny-theft rate of 2,445.8 offenses per 100,000 people. This 2002 rate is 10.4 percent below the 1998 rate and 19.4 percent below the 1993 rate. Collectively cities had a larceny-theft rate of 3,017.1 offenses per 100,000 people. Rural counties reported a rate of only one-third of that of cities. The rural rate was 1,083.3 offenses per 100,000 people.

Total larceny-theft loss was estimated at $419 billion for 2002. Of the stolen property, 39.6 percent was valued at over $200; 22.6 percent was valued between $50 and $200; and
37.8 percent was valued below $50.

For 2002 juveniles, youth under eighteen years of age, accounted for 29.5 percent of larceny-theft arrests. By gender, 63 percent of those arrested were male, 37 percent female. Females made up a considerably larger percentage of arrests for larceny-theft than for burglary. White Americans accounted for 67.9 percent of the arrests, black Americans 29.3 percent, and 2.8 percent were other races.

Motor vehicle theft

The FBI's Crime in the United States, 2002 defines motor vehicle theft as "the theft, or attempted theft of a motor vehicle. This offense includes the stealing of automobiles, trucks, buses, motorcycles, motor scooters, snowmobiles, etc." Crime in the United States, 2002 also reveals that every 25.3 seconds a motor vehicle was stolen in the United States in 2002. One in three thefts was carried out by a juvenile. Thieves prefer dark areas or unattended parking areas where no witnesses are near. About one-half of vehicles stolen were unlocked, but it takes an accomplished car thief only seconds to open most locked cars. Younger thieves often steal a car for a few hours of joyriding or to travel short distances. Other motives of car thieves include longer transportation needs or the desire to make a profit by selling the car for its parts.

Some thieves sell cars to illegal theft rings whose members falsify vehicle identification numbers and title documents then resell them. Professional car thieves who make a living from their thievery are usually connected with "chop shops," or strip shops where stolen cars are disassembled and the parts are sold. Other professional car thieves are part of export rings. Cars are stolen and sent to foreign countries where the demand for U.S.-made cars is strong. Owning an illegally exported car has become a status symbol for many individuals in several Eastern European countries.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) released a study in June 2003 listing the U.S. cities with the highest motor vehicle theft rates (called "hot" cities). A majority of the cities were close to U.S. borders with Mexico or Canada and major seaports. Phoenix, Arizona, was the number one hot spot followed by several cities in central California—Fresno, Modesto, Stockton, and Sacramento. Port cities in the hottest top ten locations included Oakland, California; Seattle and Tacoma, Washington; and Miami, Florida.

Export of stolen vehicles steadily increased in the first part of the twenty-first century. To combat this trend, the FBI along with the U.S. Customs Office, the NICB, several insurance companies, and state and local law enforcement agencies have joined together to form the North American Export Committee (NAEC). The NAEC encourages x-ray scanning of cargo containers, although by 2003 scanners were used at only a few locations. According to the NICB, illegal exporters simply avoided ports using scanners.

Theft prevention devices

While alarms such as loud warning sounds or flashing lights are widely used on vehicles, studies show they are becoming less effective in deterring thieves. Many go off so frequently, especially in large busy city settings, everyone ignores them. Locking mechanisms, such as steering wheel locks, provide a good deterrent to theft. More effective still are kill switches—which either cut off electrical power needed to start the engine or halt the supply of fuel if a theft is underway.

The most effective high tech devices are electronic tracking systems using hidden transmitters in the car that allow police to track the vehicle. Police often are led directly to the chop shops. Electronic tracking devices are even used on expensive construction equipment so they can be recovered if stolen.

National motor vehicle theft statistics

The UCR Program estimated that 1,246,096 motor vehicle thefts occurred in 2002. This number translates into an overall U.S. rate of 432.1 motor vehicles stolen per 100,000 people. Just as burglary and larceny-theft rates have declined since the early 1990s, so too have motor vehicle thefts. The 2002 rate represents a 6 percent decrease from the 1998 rate and a 28.7 percent decrease from the 1993 rate.

Cities with populations of 250,000 or more inhabitants had the highest vehicle theft rate at 927.8 offenses per 100,000 people. Small cities of less than 10,000 had a rate of 229.9 thefts per 100,000 people. Rural counties had the lowest rate of 143.4 per 100,000 people.

Of the total motor vehicle thefts, 73.6 percent were automobiles. Other vehicles stolen included commercial trucks and buses plus motorcycles and a variety of recreational vehicles such as campers and snowmobiles. The total value of all vehicles stolen was estimated at $8.4 million.

Males accounted for 83.5 percent of arrests for motor vehicle thefts in 2002; of all persons arrested, 30.4 percent were juveniles under the age of eighteen years. White Americans made up 60.4 percent of all motor vehicle theft arrests, black Americans 36.5 percent, and 3.1 percent were other races.


The UCR Program defines arson as "any willful or malicious [intended to cause harm] burning or attempt to burn, with or without intent to defraud [be deceptive], a dwelling house, public building, motor vehicle or aircraft, personal property of another, etc." The UCR further explains that fires are considered arson only if they have been investigated and proven to have been set on purpose. Other fires of suspicious or unknown cause are not automatically classified as arson. An "intent to defraud" refers to making an arson fire look like an accident so insurance money can be collected.

The crime of arson is generally carried out by one of two categories of individuals, either young males or professional adult arsonists. The UCR Program statistics have found that approximately one-half of all arsons are set by boys under eighteen years of age. While sometimes a teenage-started fire is merely vandalism of property for thrills, or just something to do, chronic (offenders who repeat their crimes) youthful arsonists are the study of psychologists.

Psychologists believe chronic arsons committed by juveniles are usually part of deeper emotional problems. Youths who start fires enjoy the sight of a burning building and the destruction caused. A youthful arsonist will often set a number of fires before being caught. The thrill and excitement they experience watching these fires makes them want to do more. This state of mind is apparently the same for both youthful and adult arsonists. Some exceptions are professional arsonists who are motivated by money and adult arsonists who are seeking revenge against the property owner.

Every city in the United States has expert professional arsonists available for hire. They make a living by burning down buildings or houses and making the fire appear as an accident so the property owner can collect insurance money. There are many reasons why a property owner might hire a professional arsonist. An owner may want to do away with an old house that costs too much to maintain. The owner could collect the insurance on the house then sell the empty lot.

There are a number of reasons why a businessperson might hire an arsonist to destroy a place of business. The owner might have outdated equipment and destroying the equipment would bring in insurance money or low cost government loans to rebuild and start anew. Another reason to hire an arsonist would be to pay off high debts with the insurance money or to destroy records of money mismanagement within the business.

Another type of arson that appeared in the 1990s and early twenty-first century is environmental arson. Extreme environmental groups on the West Coast started a number of destructive fires to focus public awareness on their concerns. A U.S. Forest Service district headquarters building was burned to the ground in Oakridge, Oregon, in protest over forest logging practices. Other environmentally motivated arson attacks have occurred on car dealership lots in Southern California and Oregon. Environmental arsonists have destroyed a number of new sport utility vehicles, which consume large amounts of gas, to protest their inefficiency and their pollution of the planet.

National arson statistics

Law enforcement agencies reported 74,921 identified arsons in 2002 or an arson rate of 32.4 offenses per 100,000 people. The most frequently reported arsons were structural arsons including residential houses and commercial businesses. Structural arsons accounted for 41.3 percent at an average dollar loss of $20,818. The second most frequent type of burned property, at 33.1 percent of arsons, was mobile properties such as motor vehicles and trailers. The average dollar loss for mobile property offenses was $6,073. Malicious burning of property such as timber and crops made up 25.7 percent of arsons at an average dollar loss of $2,536.

During 2002 approximately half of those persons arrested for arson were under the age of eighteen; of those arrested 84.8 percent were males. By race, 76.8 percent of arrests were white Americans, 21.5 percent were black, and 1.7 percent were of other races.

For More Information


Cromwell, Paul, Lee Parker, and Shawna Mobley. "The Five-Finger Discount." In In Their Own Words: Criminals on Crime, edited by Paul Cromwell, 57–70. Los Angeles: Roxbury, 2002.

Federal Bureau of Investigation. Crime in the United States, 2002: Uniform Crime Reports. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, 2003.

Siegel, Larry J. Criminology: The Core. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2002.

Web Sites

Auto-Theft.Info. (accessed on August 20, 2004).

Better Business Bureau. (accessed on August 20, 2004).

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). (accessed on August 20, 2004).

National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB). (accessed on August 20, 2004).

Securities Industry Association. (accessed on August 20, 2004).

"The Who, What, When, and Where of Stolen Vehicles." Texas Automobile Theft Prevention Association. (accessed on August 20, 2004).