Dear Professor Moriarty: Petty Thief or Criminal Mastermind

This week's guest columnist is Professor Moriarty, who reports that he is, contrary to rumors, very much alive and quite busy planning for a major event that you will all witness soon. Very soon.

Dear Professor Moriarty,

Our 12-year-old daughter was just caught shoplifting from the drug store, and she seems more concerned about how she got caught—there's a camera she didn't spot—than the fact that she did something wrong.

We aren't rich, and things are pretty tight now that the mill closed, but we've always tried to give her what she needed. And she’s always been a good kid: straight A’s, consumes books from the library, and just got into our school’s gifted program. 

Why would she throw her future away by doing something so stupid? 

What's worse is this wasn't an impulsive crime. In her History notebook, I saw a sketch of the drugstore with the locations of five cameras, the expected angles of view for each, and blindspots in each aisle with a list of items, their retail price, and the names of other children. 

I think she was planning on selling what she stole to other kids. 

How can we make sure she understands where she went wrong and how this sort of criminal behavior can ruin her life? 

—Worried Single Dad in Delaware

Dear Worried Dad,

You are absolutely in the right to worry about your daughter spending so much time and effort on a petty crime where the risks far outweigh the rewards. 

And you are correct in believing that she is probably more concerned with the practicalities of punishment than the finer points of morality. Empathy is difficult for most young children and teenagers. Only later, in their twenties, will they truly develop some moral muscle—or learn to fake empathy as I have. It’s quite useful in a social setting.

What's encouraging is how meticulous she planned. As you suspect, common criminals are dreadfully common and typically impulsive. They don’t spend hours locating cameras inside a drugstore, making sketches, and finding blind spots. Your average shoplifter would never compose a list of prices and possible clients. 

There's no future in stealing from a corner drug store, which is likely owned by a local family. Taking from the innocent is vulgar and little better than thuggery. I would no sooner shoplift from a store than I would press the point of a stiletto to the neck of a dowager while demanding the contents of her purse. 

So yes, your daughter should be punished for thinking so small and committing such a mindless crime. Because she isn't small and mindless—I believe she could be destined for greater things. 

To fully realize her potential, your daughter must realize that a talented thief targets not the innocent but the rich and greedy. To understand her greatest leverage is derived precisely from the beating heart of their undying avarice. 

The secret of con-artistry and crime on the highest level is tempting someone who already has too much. You offer them a tantalizing opportunity to get even more in a way that's secret, incredibly lucrative, and completely forbidden. Pick the right target and you don’t have to persuade a mark to swallow this bait. They gobble it up like a freshly killed hen dangled above the jaws of a crocodile.

At your daughter’s age, I was in the midst of exploring the Spanish prisoner scam, a gambit that's worthy of her talent and dedication to detail. She should consider starting with that. 

If she needs guidance or a scholarship, I’ll happily correspond with her or send a check from one of my anonymous foundations. I do hate seeing young potential go to waste. 

—Professor Moriarty

See also: Dear Professor Moriarty: A Company Christmas Dinner Disaster


Guy Bergstrom is a speechwriter and reformed journalist. He's represented by literary agent Jill Marr and can be found on Twitter @speechwriterguy or at his blog, For etiquette questions you want answered in this column, try

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