Moll lives for two years in a hopeless and lonely state of ever-increasing poverty. One night she wanders out with no particular aim and happens upon an unguarded package. "This was the Bait," she recounts, "and the Devil who...laid the Snare, as readily prompted me, as if he had spoke, for I remember, and shall never forget it, 'twas like a Voice spoken to me over my Shoulder, take the Bundle; be quick; do it this Moment." She steals the package and then wanders around in "Horror of...Soul" and "Terror of Mind." Her severe poverty soon reconciles her to the act, however, and she becomes a regular thief. Moll has a particular eye for an opportunity--and quite good luck as well--and soon has a substantial store of stolen goods. Not knowing where to market them, she returns to her "old Governess," who has since fallen on hard times and become a pawn-broker.
Moll entertains the hope that her Governess might be able to help her find some honest employment, "but here she was deficient; honest Business did not come within her reach." She does finally find a little sewing work, but still feels the periodic urge to walk out on stealing expeditions; it becomes plain that she has begun to enjoy them. After becoming the mistress of a baronet for a brief period, Moll returns to crime. She soon begins to collaborate openly with her Governess in her thieving and becomes acquainted with other local criminals as well. She learns a few tricks of the trade from veteran thieves and pickpockets, and her skill quickly surpasses their own. Although she sometimes enters into partnerships, Moll prefers to work alone, and she soon gains some renown as a master thief. In the period of her greatest notoriety she is given the name "Moll Flanders."
Moll sees a number of her "Comerades" sent to Newgate prison and even executed, and she has several close calls herself. The sense of danger she derives from these experiences makes her more careful--she begins to don disguises and occasionally leaves London when things get too hot--but she is never seriously deterred from her life of crime. If anything, the risk seems to feed her addiction. Moll once gets arrested by mistake, and she even manages to turn that to her own advantage. Finally, however, Moll is caught in the act of stealing some fabric, and they cart her off to Newgate.
Moll carefully traces the process by which she is tempted into and then inextricably involved in a life of crime. She says of her critics, "Let 'em remember that a time of Distress is a time of dreadful Temptation, and all the Strength to resist is taken away; Poverty presses, the Soul is made Desperate by Distress, and what can be Done?" The more successful and celebrated she becomes as a criminal, the more reluctant Moll is to leave off the "trade," despite her occasional pangs of conscience. She explains the strength of the inducements to crime but does not disguise her motives: "If...a prospect of Work had presented itself at first, when I began to feel the approach of my miserable Circumstances,...I had never fallen into this wicked Trade, or into such a wicked Gang as I was now embark'd with; but practise had hardened me, and I grew audacious to the last degree; and the more so, because I had carried it on so long, and had never been taken." Stealing becomes a kind of compulsion for Moll, and she freely admits that she continued to steal even once she had plenty of money--as if for the challenge and excitement of it.
This segment of the book is peppered with pragmatic morals: Defoe tells us not only how Moll could have done her work better, but also how her victims might have avoided being robbed. And the crime detail as a whole is purported to serve the moral purpose of warning readers against becoming victims themselves, rather than against criminal behavior. Even this explanation does not seem to capture the true character of Defoe's relish for these scenes, however. He presents Moll's thievery as almost an art form; her narrative delights in the ingenuity with which each crime is conceived and the technical mastery with which it is accomplished. "I grew the greatest Artist of my time," she writes, "and work'd myself out of every danger with...Dexterity." The fact that Moll, from her retrospective vantage point, takes such joy in these relations calls into question the sincerity of her repentance.
Moll's criminal phase is in many ways the period of her greatest independence and autonomy. Once she becomes a master thief, Moll's solitude is turned from a liability to an advantage. It becomes the mark of freedom and self-sufficiency, just as her preference for working alone stems from the knowledge of her superior skill. Having found a "career," at which she excels, Moll no longer has to seek desperately for a man to support her. The fact that crime is the occupation that presents itself (we can hardly imagine that needlework, Moll's only real alternative, would have been as fulfilling or empowering) might be taken as an indication of Defoe's insight into predicament of women in his day, and particularly of the dearth of acceptable outlets for their talent and ambition.