Property crimes vary along a continuum from crimes that are so petty in nature that they are not even noticed by the victim to crimes on a scale so large that the associated economic loss can be vast. The property crimes of professional thieves are characterized by greater planning and financial reward than are those of the vast majority of thieves, who are referred to as "persistent" or "occasional." Strict specialization is rarely found among property offenders, who typically move back and forth between similar types of property crimes, with infrequent involvement in personal crimes like robbery. While a certain degree of rationality characterizes the crimes and actions of the majority of thieves, it is only a limited or bounded rationality that must be interpreted and understood within the social and cultural context of the everyday lives, situations, and needs of offenders.
The prototypical property crime is a larceny, usually petty in nature. The legal boundaries of larceny are determined by the value of the merchandise taken. One of the most frequent larcenies is shoplifting, a crime that is quite prevalent, especially among adolescents. As with all property crimes, shoplifting may be carried out by professionals, but generally this is not the case.
One of the most serious forms of property crime is burglary, categories of which are distinguished legally by the amount of force used to gain entry into the structure. Both residences and commercial establishments are victimized by burglars. Other factors, such as the time of day, characterize the offense of burglary. As property criminals, burglars can often cross the line to more serious violent crimes like homicide, rape, and robbery. Even in the absence of violent crime, the social costs of burglary to the victim and to society are numerous.
Property crimes usually involve stolen goods that need to be translated into cash. The movement of stolen goods, a criminal offense, has been studied from several perspectives. Those who move stolen goods range from the professional fence, whose business is buying and selling stolen goods in volume, to the amateur receiver, who quite often resembles an ordinary citizen.
Arson, like the other property crimes examined in this chapter, has the potential to result in both great economic loss and loss of life. Although arson for profit and for protest certainly occurs, the majority of arsons involve adolescents who bring a variety of personal motives to fire setting.