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Crimes Against Property

Burglary, Neighborhood Watch, Larceny-theft, Credit Card Theft, Motor Vehicle Theft, Arson

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 While a gentleman kindly bows to two ladies, an elderly woman picks his pocket. (© Bettmann/Corbis) 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.

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.


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.

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.

A security guard watching video monitors of various locations of the mall to prevent shoplifting. (AP/Wide World Photos)

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.

Men demonstrating to police how quickly a car can be stripped of valuable parts. (AP/Wide World Photos)

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.

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.

A device called "The Club" locks the steering wheel in place and is a good deterrent to theft. (© David Butow/Corbis)

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.

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. http://www.auto-theft.info (accessed on August 20, 2004).

Better Business Bureau. http://www.bbbonline.org (accessed on August 20, 2004).

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). http://www.fbi.gov (accessed on August 20, 2004).

National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB). http://www.nicb.org (accessed on August 20, 2004).

Securities Industry Association. http://www.sia.com (accessed on August 20, 2004).

"The Who, What, When, and Where of Stolen Vehicles." Texas Automobile Theft Prevention Association. http://www.dot.state.tx.us/atpa/index.htm (accessed on August 20, 2004).

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal Law