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Theftlation: Is Inflation Changing Petty Theft?

Updated on January 6, 2015
t aaron brown profile image

Travis is a contributing analyst for Seeking Alpha. He maintains a central hub of stock market information at DIY Stock Investor.

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What is Theftlation?

Theftlation is a term I coined (or so I think) to express what several state congresses have been talking about. In addition to the most basic characteristics of inflation, small electronic and general merchandise (EGM) have become technologically advanced with features that are theoretically priceless.

Compact electronic technology has grown exponentially compared to the pace of legislation that distinguishes the difference between misdemeanor and felony theft. In other words, a petty thief could easily find themselves stealing a device of great value. The result being a felony charge. The intent of this article is to highlight some of the unintended conflict between technology and public policy.

Investopedia gives a basic definition and video for inflation: "The rate at which the general level of prices for goods and services is rising, and, subsequently, purchasing power is falling."

Theftlation (Theft-inflation): The rise in cost of goods, especially small electronics, with a stagnant threshold for petty theft and grand larceny.

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Electronic and General Merchandise

Electronic and General Merchandise (EGM) is a category that includes smartphones and tablets. This category would also include the newly designed phablets (phone + tablet-sized screen).

According to Amazon.com, the best sellers during Christmas 2014 were the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 and Samsung Galaxy S5, $699.99 and $599.99 respectively. This is the cost without a service contract. One merchanct was selling the Apple iPhone 6 at a range from $699.99 to over a thousand dollars due to low inventory and high demand.

In 2010, smartphones had a price range around $399, however most were sold with a 2-year contract for a lower price. Considering that a smartphone is actually worth the monthly payments stretched out over the two years and the initial fee, how does one properly account for its worth when those payments are also commingled with the telephone service?

Theft Laws

State laws go to great length to determine the value of a stolen item and its class. For example, a vehicle will typically be valued over $1,000, but then again it might be an old junker. The range is so vast, that a more simplistic method is to treat the offense as a felony regardless of value. The theft of a vehicle also hinders a person's freedom to travel, which is connected to employment and personal enjoyment. Society tends to think of this as a greater possession than a bicycle; even if the bicycle is expensive and the primary mode of transportation.

A society's custom can change faster than it can collectively construct or amend new laws. Customs can differ among counties and vary from state to state. For example, in Texas there is a threshold of pigs one can steal before the misdemeanor becomes a felony. This specific item of property, swine, may not be listed in other societies.

A smartphone has different societal views of value too. Some use it to just place phone calls; others to access bank accounts, unlock cars, control residential lighting, etc. Depending on how people use their smartphone, it maybe more valuable than a vehicle or twenty pigs.

The following are summaries of different state laws that distinguish petty theft from grand larceny:

Samsung Wallet Introduction

Smartphones Are Access Devices and More

Many states have identified theft of an access device as a felony offense (grand larceny). A credit card or debit card falls under this definition. Due to the ability to drain/access large amounts of cash or credit from a victim's account, there is a large range in value, kind of like the vehicle example. In days of old, when a thief would steal a conventional billfold, they may have obtained some cash. Today, a wallet likely contains a selection of access devices, personal identification and loyalty cards.

How a court determines the culpable mental state and aggregate value under these new trends and circumstances varies. In Texas, the court might attempt to ascertain the aggregate value of an item, "the greatest amount of economic loss that the owner might reasonably suffer by virtue of loss of the document..." It is like the thief is stealing a mystery grab bag. They might get $10 or if it were a more prosperous person, there could be access devices to large accounts.

A similar circumstance is the theft of a smartphone. The value of the smartphone alone could be upwards of $1,000 depending on when it was purchased (supply and demand). Additionally, each user stores a vast amount of valuables on the smartphone. It can contain subscriptions to Google Plus or iTunes app stores. The device may have stored codes and access to bank accounts, medical records, flight tickets, compromising "selfies," etc.

With all the network media subscriptions on a smartphone: Twitter, Facebook, Google+; stealing a smartphone brings a new meaning to identity theft. What is the price or detriment for this loss of identity? The answer would surely vary depending on which society or age group you poll.

The newest tech, the feature of Samsung Wallet and Apple Pay, allows for the smartphone to be scanned at the point of purchase. This is in lieu of exchanging cash or using a conventional credit card.

What is the True Value of a Smartphone?

What valuation do you assign to your social network (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) account access?

See results

The Big Takeaway

The study of theftlation shows how technological advancements, theft and identity protection present unique challenges to our legislation. There are unintentional consequences and laws are rendered ineffective due to latent ambiguity. Carrying expensive EGMs with bundles of sensitive information can be risky for all involved, but it's unlikely we will stop. Just a little added knowledge of these issues may help legal discourse, consumers and perhaps deter someone you know that has sticky fingers. A smartphone is not a simple wallet, rolodex, bank account or ID; it is all of those and more.

Disclosure: This is intended for educational purposes and light reading. It is not intended for legal advice. Please consult your legislator or attorney as needed.

© 2014 t aaron brown

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    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 3 years ago from Auburn, WA

      Very interesting and prescient article. I find property crimes increasing at alarming rates and law enforcement not really interested in solving them, using budgetary reasons as an excuse. They still make up the majority of crimes in the U.S. I believe there is a devaluing of personal property in society, which does not bode well for any of us. We will have to start defining more clearly the value we place on material goods.

      There was just a story on the local news here in the Seattle area that the thefts of relatively valueless items have increased well ahead of things like smart phones. Garden tools and other junk are being taken at increasing rates by junkies. Strange.

      Voted up and shared.

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