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At the ripe young age of 12, I briefly experimented with the fine art of thievery.  The idea came from my then-in-college brother who had returned for summer break with more Nintendo games than the "Angry Video Game Nerd."  His initial story was that the games were the natural result of winning the grand prize in a video game contest in the Bay Area.  The story made perfect sense--my brother was a superbly talented video game player, and the Bay Area was the national headquarters for video game contests at the time.

Surprisingly, my brother revealed the truth about the games to me.  He said they came from this "thing you can do" at stores.  Many stores (especially around the holidays) would accept returns without a receipt, granting store credit or a product exchange.  The scam was scandalously simple: Move a relatively small and expensive product in the store to a "hiding place;" then return several hours to a few days later, pick up the product, and exchange it.  It's even better if you divide the task with a cohort.  Your reward would be store credit usable at any chain location.  I guess you could consider it a form of "product laundering" where stolen goods are transformed into legitimate store credit.  These days I would assume stores have more robust inventory tracking systems to report exactly what products have actually been purchased.  Back then, scams like these apparently worked.

Unfortunately, I bought into the failsafes the scam promised and tried it myself.  I failed miserably on my very first go.  Believe it or not, the store clerk didn't allow 12 year-old me to exchange an electronic keyboard hidden elsewhere in the store hours earlier for a video game tempting me from behind the counter.  What on earth did I do wrong?

I was held in the back room of the toy store as mall security was called.  I gave a fake name, fake phone number, and pretended to be on the verge of throwing up.  Or maybe I wasn't exactly pretending.  This was hands down the most trouble I had ever found myself in.  They asked where I had learned such a scam.  I said, "My brother told me about it."  Security briefly left the room for some reason or another, and I eyed the "Emergency Exit Only - Alarm Will Sound" door on the opposite side of the small back room.  I didn't act.  Damn Catholic guilt.

The two men returned and said that the store decided not to press charges; however, I would have to be turned over to my parents or guardian, and that person informed about what I had done.  The time to meet back up with my mom and younger sister was rapidly approaching.  Cracking under the torturous pressure applied by mall security, I hesitatingly revealed this fact to the two stern gentlemen.  As they escorted me to the meeting place, the more severely overweight one remarked, "Don't try to run.  We're faster than you."  It wasn't funny at the time, but looking back this remark is downright hysterical.  Yeah right, fatty.  A 300-pounder on the verge of a cardiac moment can outrun a 65-pound 12 year-old?  That I'd like to see.  Regrettably, that would have to happen in an alternate universe.  I surrendered and quietly followed them to my impending doom.

My mom's facial expression contorted suddenly as her eyes spotted the 2 security guards flanking me.  They politely explained what I had done, finishing with, "...he said he learned it from his brother."  My livid mother drove home in a frightening silence that defined the very soul of the word "awkward."  Anger buried her tongue, fear and regret buried mine; and we were both at a loss for words.  She shattered the silence with, "Why did you blame Steve?"

The question was forged in unbelievability.  How could the straight-A star pupil studying diligently at a prestigious university be connected with my scandalous behavior?  I maintained the cloud of ignorance with seeds of further illusion.  Utilizing a word recently learned in 7th grade vocabulary class, I replied, "I was looking for a scapegoat."  That ended the brief conversation, but the anger continued unabated.

My lie proved itself moot.  A month or so later my parents were graced by a phone call from my brother.  He was in jail arrested for grand theft and in dire need of a lawyer.  His situation like mine came with a dichotomy of good and bad news.  He got off with community service, but his academic career at that university was over.

His moving not only back into the same house as I, but also the same room was probably the most uncomfortable era in my young life.  Move-in day revealed the true extent of the scams.  Storage space in our garage filled with stolen kitchen appliances, home electronics, and hundreds of video games and systems.  It looked like the entire gift registry for a 500+ guest wedding reception.  The repertoire of scams extended far beyond the one I had tried.  Forged receipt scams, buy at one/return at another, and even partners in crime greatly assisted in building the empire.  My mom didn't want the stuff in the house.  She suggested giving it all to charity.  I don't remember that happening, though.

My mom asked me why I labeled him a mere scapegoat when that was such an obvious lie in retrospect.  I said, "I didn't think you'd believe me."  She followed the question with a shocking bit of previously unknown information.  My brother supposedly worked a part-time job at a used video game store in the Bay Area.  He often sold me used video games and systems with his employee discount.  It was every 12 year-old boy's dream to have an older brother working such a job, so I was the envy of my circle of video game dork friends.  According to my mom, those games were all stolen and my money was pocketed as 100% profit.

I think for the most part my family forgave me as the influential older sibling's transgression far overshadowed mine; however, my own guilt and regret continued to riddle me.  Mercifully, in time the wounds healed and the life learnings were digested.  My brother soon moved out and on, and luckily a family drama of this magnitude has as yet never resurfaced.

Like "GI Joe" episodes, I tend to end articles with life lesson summaries.  Since I was 12 years old at the time, these learnings may be quite obvious, but just for the hell of it:
* Don't steal.  It's against the law and will get you in trouble.
* Trouble leads to more trouble, and lies lead to more lies.
* Everybody makes mistakes.  The key is to not keep making the same mistakes over and over.  Mix it up and make different mistakes.
* Even children have rudimentary knowledge of right and wrong, and lessons learned early in life shape the cornerstone of one's moral character.
* Despite the high-ranking value of individuality that permeates American culture, influence from friends and family is a phenomenally-powerful shaping force.  If you hang out with drug users, then you'll probably become a drug user yourself.  If you befriend outgoing, motivated people, then you'll likely become outgoing and motivated.  You may think your personality is your own, but that's not entirely true.  You sell it to others in everyday interactions--unconsciously encouraging them to adopt your character traits.  Therefore, you can choose to warm others with your light; or chill them with your frigidity.  Don't underestimate the influential power of yours and others' human essence.

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