The Store Thief "Riddle"

This is easy: $100. The purchase of goods is not what we talk about when we talk about a story with a thief and loss.

The size of the herring doesn’t matter as much as its color.

I hope this clarifies the argument. We are arguing about the semantics of the word ‘lose’. What does ‘lose’ mean in this context?

I would argue that the word ‘lose’ could either mean, “how much was stolen in the theft” or it could mean, “how much less the store has after the events described”.

You are arguing only the first in a valid interpretation of the word ‘lose’. I would disagree and say the word is ambiguous.

I think all the 200+ posts here boil down to this question: What does ‘lose’ mean in this context?

OK, lets ask the same question, but with a non-trivial um of money.

The thief is a store employee, with access to the accounts. He successfully embezzles $100,000. He then spends $70,000 buying company products.

When the theft is discovered, the management report to the police, and to their insurance. What sum do they say is missing?

If the insurance company pays for the loss, they will pay a claim of how much money?

If the thief is caught, he will be charged with the theft of how much money?

In this jurisdiction, the maximum sentence for stealing $80,000 and below is 5 years. For stealing $80,001 to $120,000 the maximum sentence is 10 years. For stealing $120,000 and above, the maximum sentence is 15 years.

What is the maximum sentence that can be imposed on the thief?

Probably the full $100,000 in all scenarios. But that’s not relevant to the original question.

If a thief steals $100, then changes his mind and returns it before leaving the store, how much did the store lose?
If a thief steals $100, then accidentally drops a different $100 from his pocket while leaving, how much did the store lose?
If a thief steals $100, leaves the store and is immediately arrested, and the $100 is returned to the store, how much did the store lose?

In any of these cases, the thief could be charged with the theft. But the store didn’t lose anything. This is why I think both ways of viewing the question are valid. ‘Lose’ is ambiguous.

Or perhaps imprecise.

In this context, the most reasonable interpretation (and be the one apparently applied by most posters here) is probably: How much worse off is the store as a result of the thief’s actions?

I’m among those who think two answers are possible:

  1. As compared to the case in which this thief never entered the store: $30 plus the store’s cost of the $70 item.

  2. As compared to the case in which the thief was intending to make the purchase whether or not he committed the theft: $100.

Or… The store didn’t lose anything. Nothing was misplaced.
There was 100 dollars stolen, There was 100 dollars “lost or stolen”.

If a person lost 100 dollars and found 50 dollars how much did he lose?

It depends on how you define lose.

Reverse the order of the two events:

A man uses a $100 bill to buy a $70 item, leaving him with the item and $30 in change. He then steals a $100 bill from a cash register. How much did the store lose?

Clearly the store lost $100 in that circumstance. The answer is the same if the events happen in the other order.

I disagree, as I said above. This man left the store with a $70 item and $30 in cash more than he had when he arrived. The store had $30 less and one fewer $70 item. It is perfectly valid to say that is what they ‘lost’ from the visit.

Suppose the man entered the store and stole $30 cash and a $70 item. He leaves with the exact same things as in the original question. The transaction in the register does not affect how much the store actually truly lost.

If we’re claiming that purchases, even those made at a different time, matter, then wouldn’t that mean that if I stole from a store I shopped at regularly I could claim that the store hadn’t lost anything at all? Say I shop at the same supermarket twice a week, spending $50 a week for two years. Then one day for whatever reason I steal $100 from the cash register.

By the reasoning here, I could claim that the store hadn’t actually lost anything because I’d previously spent far more than $100 there.

Can’t see that standing up in court.

Yes, and this is what actually happened. Plus an erroneous bill of sale was created, but that doesn’t alter the value of the cash+item of course.

There is a difference between a net calculation of loss, and a gross calculation of loss.



No-one in this thread has made any assertion that a net calculation of loss would, or should, influence criminal charges.

I really don’t have a clue what you mean about gross calculation, sorry. How does it contradict what I was saying?

And yes, at least one person absolutely has been arguing that criminal charges would be affected.

I said the store lost $100. You said the store lost $100. You don’t seem to be disagreeing with me.

A gross calculation doesn’t have anything subtracted from it.

A net calculation has things subtracted from it.

The question in the OP lists two different interactions between the thief and the store.

The gross calculation of loss – which is fully reasonable – focuses only on the 100 dollars stolen without subtracting anything. The net calculation of loss – which also happens to be fully reasonable – subtracts from the loss any potential margin received from the sale of the good. People like me, who have been trained for a very long time to try to consider all aspects of such interactions, are very likely to look at the two different interactions between the store and the thief, explicitly mentioned in the question, and to net both, which is to say, to count both together, to subtract the second from the first, because both were mentioned together.

This is not the One Right Way to tackle the puzzle. But neither is it some empty exercise. It’s trying to strike at a deeper understanding of what might be going on under the surface. But “the loss is 100 dollars” is okay, too. It’s fully meaningful to say that they are 100 short of where they justifiably expected to be.



Would be affected by the net calculation of loss?

That’s the specific assertion I made.

I was specifically replying to your comment that being a long-time customer would not be an effective criminal defense against the charge of theft. No-one has said it would be. If I’m mistaken about that, you can cite the post.

I said that answer wasn’t wrong. But it’s also not the only right answer.

A thief enters a store and steals $100 cash from the till. Then he buys a $100 item. In his haste to escape, he drops the item on his way out. An employee finds it on the floor and puts it back on the shelf.

How much did the store lose?

At the end of the day, the register will show a $100 shortage. But the thief left with nothing. I would say the store didn’t lose anything. Those who say in the OP that the store lost $100 and nothing else can be the answer must, to be consistent, say the store lost $100 in this scenario too. But I think that’s absurd.

Disagree. Losing something that is placed on a shelf and offered for sale at $70 is not equal to losing $70 cash—it may be, but not necessarily.

We don’t know the demand for that item (would the owner lose a legitimate sale because 1 item is missing?) and we don’t know how quickly he can reorder it (same). We don’t know if it is a commodity item or a very rare irreplaceable item. Is it a bargain shop where haggling is expected and nobody pays the list price? Those are very real unknown facts left out of the question and are not wild speculation or silly hypotheticals. They are real world facts which determine how much the owner actually lost.

Everyone would agree that the owner would be out the true cost of the item if the thief just swipes the item. But if you add in that he took $70 and then replaced the $70 that it somehow changes the true cost of loss. That’s absurd. An owner cannot realize a profit when paid with his own stolen money. If he is paid with the neighbor’s stolen money (assuming no restitution) then he profits.

To me, this is a very simple problem. Larceny was committed in the amount of $100.

What’s that (general) you say? That’s not what the question asked? Exactly. The question was so imprecisely worded that it cannot be answered without playing some amount of word games. The game is easiest if you indicate your assumptions as to meaning, implicitly or explicitly, and go from there. I take this to be a problem in criminal law. Take it as a problem in economics, accounting, metaphysics, supply chain management, etc, etc and you may well come up with a different answer. Provided you make it clear how you are evaluating the problem, within what context, and give an answer that follows from that framework, you can only be wrong if you think you have the one acceptable answer.

Right, so let’s assume that proving larceny of the item is important. You don’t believe that presented with the original question that the thief could not be convicted of a larceny of the item? In what jurisdiction is it so easily evaded simply by making meaningless swaps of stolen cash?

As I said earlier, pretend it was a gun. Do you think a defendant in this situation could successfully argue that he did not steal a gun, he merely stole cash from the gun shop till and made a “legitimate purchase” using “legal tender” of a gun? Would the judge laugh at the attorney making this argument?

If the judge was extremely stupid, sure.

Really? You think that someone can escape the harsher penalties for stealing a gun just by taking money out of the gun store cash register and then “paying” for the gun?

Any court in the United States would see that the desired outcome of the scheme or artifice was to acquire the gun and not the cash.