Crime doesn't (always) pay; you never know who your victim might be. Just because your victim didn't turn out to be a superhero, alien assassin, or a fellow crook doesn't mean you've gotten away with it. You might find that things went a little bit too well, and you've committed a crime that'll get you far more attention than you ever wanted.
You might discover that the random woman you've just robbed is The Cape's wife, and now his Hero Secret Service is on your tail, or that bag you're running away with might carry the MacGuffin, or perhaps you tried to steal a car and ended up "kidnapping" the kid in the back seat. Either way, you're in over your head.
The crime might escalate either because of the victim (they're rich, important, or famous, getting a lot of unwanted attention, or the media just happens to pick up on it) or because of the payoff (usually by stealing something more valuable than expected, either because everybody wants it or it's worth more than it appears). Note that the intended crime itself doesn't have to be minor; a Serial Killer drawing unwanted attention by picking a victim who happens to be important also fits this trope.
If it focuses on the criminals, then it'll either focus on how in over their head they are (as they flee from the law and possibly other criminals) or be played as a case of Can't Get Away with Nuthin' (especially if it's the "important victim" variant).
When the story focuses on detectives (or other law enforcement) investigating this trope, it's often either revealed as a humorous twist (the "master criminal" turns out to be some lowlife in the wrong place at the wrong time) or a red herring (if a crime appears to be this trope, it'll usually be subverted). When the trope is in effect from the start and played straight to the end, it's usually so that there's a reason the detectives will be under pressure to solve the case.
Sister trope to Accidental Murder (which may or may not be the result of a more minor crime). Stupid Crooks are especially prone to this trope. For other cases of things going so well they go badly, see Gone Horribly Right. Compare Robbing the Mob Bank, Mugging the Monster, and Bullying a Dragon, where the crime is foiled because the crooks are in over their head, and Colliding Criminal Conspiracies when it's foiled because they're caught up in another crime. This trope can lead to Crime After Crime.
- In the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex episode "Embraced by a Disguised Net – CAPTIVATED", a member of an Organ Legging gang accidentally kidnaps the daughter of a politician who was denying their existence. The team are able to take advantage of this trope by having the politician denounce the gang to make the kidnapper panic (they know she's a professional who won't kill the girl). It turns out that a rival had given her a list which included the politician's daughter so she'd be branded a traitor.
- This trope is part of the origin story of Green Lantern Simon Baz: being forced to resort to grand theft auto after being fired, he once stole the wrong car and mid police chase, he found a bomb inside. Faced with no other options, he drove the car into his now abandoned former workplace and ran. The explosion was seen as an act of terrorism and Baz was captured and under interrogation when the ring came to him...
- The plot of the Serenity: Better Days miniseries involves the crew raiding a buried money cache that turns out to be several thousand times more valuable than they thought.
- Batman: Depending on the Writer, what was either a desperate mugging or a hit on a potential mob witness turns into something much bigger. And then there was the robbery of a chemical plant's payroll department by a small-timer in a hood.
- Spider-Man is nearly the same deal as Batman, a small-time crook killing a homeowner in a burglary and practically changing the face of the world. In fact, their two origins were compared in the first Batman/Spider-Man crossover.
- Dick Tracy: In the Crewy Lou storyline, Crewy steals Tess Tracy's car in order to make a getaway. However, she fails to notice Bonny Ann Braids napping in the backseat, turning it not merely into an unintentional kidnapping, but making it It's Personal for Tracy.
- Just about anyone who threatens Lois Lane in any incarnation of Superman (except for continuities where it would be a case of Mugging the Monster).
- The Punisher:
- "The End": Frank and a fellow maximum security inmate are the last two people on Earth, Frank having killed off the super-rich who'd hidden away in bunkers while WW III went nuclear. Frank then asks him why he was in max despite not being a hardened killer or hardened criminal, and it turns out a few years back he'd been in involved in an insurance scam and set empty apartment blocks on fire... except the last job set fire to an elementary school. Frank kills him too, shortly before the radiation takes him.
- One story follows a bunch of mooks (also involved in insurance scams) who have the extreme misfortune of being seen at work by Frank. The sole survivor gets increasingly jittery, and goes from connected criminal to mob boss in the hopes of finding one powerful enough to protect him. Needless to say, all he's doing is leading Frank to a number of influential criminals ripe for the killing.
- Frank's origin story involves his family stumbling on a mob execution (or in "The Cell", a botched mob hit with Trigger Happy bodyguards) and being killed, leading to Frank's one-man war on criminals, even after those originally responsible were long dead.
- Inner City Blues: The comic starts when a pair of car thieves bring back what they believe to be the biggest haul of their lives... except that when they bring it to the mechanic, he identifies it as belonging to a powerful mob boss. Who calls him up a few seconds later to ask that they return it. Surprisingly enough, the mobster doesn't have them killed, instead putting them to work for him as enforcers.
- The fanfic Princess Celestia Gets Mugged is all about this. Three crooks attempt to kidnap Sunny Skies, who is actually Princess Celestia in disguise. It's only once they find out who Sunny Skies really is that they start to panic.
- In Origin Story, Alex Harris and the Runaways decide to strike back and Norman Osborn by stealing a shipping container from a secure dock (they're inspired to do it by a similar scene in Lethal Weapon 2), thinking they'll net maybe a couple of million dollars in cash. Turns out the container they steal contains over 10 billion dollars in cash, plus a car, plus a stack of high-grade plasma-screen TV's, plus around $300,000 in really high-grade champagne. The theft is enough to cause Oscorp stock to drop thirty points.
- There is also SHIELD's research into Alex (when she first appeared, calling herself "Karen Starr" because it was Power Girl's secret identity). Once they discovered that there was a girl with that name that looked like a younger Alex and that was nowhere to be found, they followed the trail expecting to find the origins of an apparent runaway girl that had somehow become a Physical God. It turned out that they instead found out that her father (an abusive scumbag) had killed her and buried her in the family home's backyard, reporting her as a runaway afterwards to throw people's scents off. This ended up unnerving everybody involved in the assignment, including Phil Coulson and even Tony Stark himself.
- Discussed in the comments to the Triptych Continuum story Magic Minus Magic. A pair of thieves break into Twilight Sparkle's library to steal her rare book collection. Twilight confronts them, at which point the elder of the two decides to kill her. While she had reason to believe she could take Twilight (who was currently unable to work magic due to Rhynorn's Flu), the thief is still forgetting two things she should know perfectly well.
- Firstly, Twilight is the favorite student of Celestia and close friend of both the Diarchs of Equestria. Kill her, and you guarantee that you will be the subject of the most thorough and relentless ponyhunt in Equestria's history, with the Princess and Celestia mobilizing every policepony in the country, spreading the word across all Equestria, posting massive bounties on the two, and probably calling on secret and even forbidden magic to track the two down.
- Second, Twilight is also the Bearer of Magic, one of the six ponies who have, in the past two or three years alone, saved Equestria from Discord, Nightmare Moon, and Chrysalis. Kill her, and you practically guarantee that the next world-ending horror will find Equestria easy prey. And the thieves are almost certain to be killed if the world falls into eternal night or chaos or whatever the next cosmic horror might attempt.
- Toy Story. Woody is jealous of the attention Andy pays to Buzz Lightyear. He schemes to knock Buzz down behind a desk, which would inconvenience him but not hurt him. Instead, because of a series of accidents, Buzz is knocked out the room's window, and the other toys want to lynch Woody because they think he did that on purpose.
- In Murder in the First, the main character stole money from the till of a shop out of desperation. Because the shop in question had a post office, he was charged with a federal crime and ended up being punished as if he were a bank robber.
- In The Bank Job, the criminals rob a bank which, while fairly high profile, should not have gotten them into the trouble it did. Turns out the bank was used by various shady characters to store their valuables and incriminating documents. The bank robbers quickly become the target of corrupt cops, drug dealers, and a murderous porn baron. However, the trope is actually subverted since there was nothing 'accidental' about the mess. It is a gambit by MI-5 to retrieve politically embarrassing photographs.
- In Office Space, the characters create a software program which will take the rounded-off fractions of pennies from financial transactions from their employer and deposit it in a bank account they created — an idea they stole from Superman III. They figure that the money would never be missed by Initech, the company they work for, because the theft would be so gradual. But when they check the account the following day, it has already deposited over $300,000, because they Misplaced a Decimal Point.
- In Stealing Rembrandt, some lowlife thugs plan to steal a painting by a relatively unknown artist for some easy cash, only to mistakenly grab the only Rembrandt in their country by accident. This touches off a nation-wide police search, deals with foreign mobsters, and overall chaos for the petty thugs as they try to act like the professional thieves the press describes them to be.
- In Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man, the protagonists steal bags of what they think is cash from a bank owned by a corporation that is trying to acquire and then demolish a bar owned by their friend and build a skyscraper office building on the land. When they open the bags, they find nothing but a highly addictive and lethal new drug. The bank and the drug empire they're in business with want it back and send their best assassins after the heroes.
- The Chase: Kidnapping a girl and taking her car would just be another notch on the getaway list of Jack Hammond... had the girl not been the daughter of the wealthiest man in California. Thus The Chase ensues.
- Absolute Power: Luther Withney, a burglar, breaks into a house to steal jewels, but witnesses a murder (by the President, no less) for which he is suspected.
- Tsotsi: The title character steals a woman's car, only to realize that there's a baby in the backseat.
- The bank manager from the Villain Opening Scene of The Dark Knight tries to evoke this in order to scare The Joker's crew as they rob his bank. It doesn't work.
Bank Manager: Do you have any idea who you're stealing from?! You and your friends are dead!
- Man on Fire holds a variation: while kidnapping a little girl is not what we would call a "small" crime, the situation is worsened because it happened on Mexico City, which we are provided information of holding an absurdly high kidnapping percentage, so kidnapping Lupita Ramos is not something that any of the criminals see as wrong. Unfortunately, they went and pissed off the wrong One-Man Army Retired Badass Papa Wolf while performing this task, and thus are unprepared for his decision to go on a Kill 'em All Roaring Rampage of Revenge...
- An interesting example occurs within the film John Wick: Iosef steals the vintage Mustang of the titular character, and in doing so both beats the crap out of him and kills his dog. There is absolutely nobody in the New York criminal underworld (except Iosef and his friends, of course) that doesn't know the kind of man that Wick used to be, and his own father Viggo points out to Iosef the kind of shitstorm that he brought down on himself (and everybody who gets in the way, including Viggo) in his decision to let pettiness and greed guide him.
- The Way of the Gun. Two villains kidnap the surrogate mother of a rich man who turns out to be a mob accountant. Even when warned that their victim has organised crime connections who will be unwilling to see their dirty money handed over to a couple of small time criminals, and they're offered a 'mere' million dollars to walk away clean, they turn down the offer in favor of the $15 million ransom they're demanding.
- In Pickup on South Street, Skip lifts a wallet from the purse of a random woman on the subway. Unbeknownst to him, the wallet contains a microfilm the woman is ferrying to the head of Communist spy ring. Stealing the wallet puts the police, the feds and the Commies on Skip's trail.
- In one of Labyrinths of Echo' sequels; a forest witch who was feeling lonely enchanted and effectively kidnapped some likable strangers... who happened to be the King Incognito with his entourage. After the problem was resolved, she said something to the effect of "Why Didnt You Just Say So — I'm crazy, not stupid".
- In Retribution Falls, Darian Frey raids the Ace Of Skulls, believing it to be a freighter transporting gemstones, but when it explodes after taking one shot and bodies fall out, it becomes clear that it was a liner. Darian Frey later learns that one the passengers was the son of a duke.
- In the book Holes, Zero steals a pair of shoes. Little did he know that they were owned by a famous baseball player and were being sold for charity — after he took them, he heard lots of people exclaiming, "The shoes are gone!" and shortly afterward, he heard police sirens and threw them away off a highway overpass, (accidentally framing the protagonist in the process).
- In True Talents, Trash wants to buy some art supplies, but is strapped for cash. While at the bank, he gives in to temptation and uses his telekinesis to steal a wad of bills from a trolley. After leaving, he looks through them and realizes that they're all hundred dollar bills — meaning he just walked off with thousands of dollars. This gets him noticed by the wrong people.
- In Judge Dee, an influential criminal tries to kill the judge by trapping him and his deputies under a huge bell, nearly suffocating them. When they manage to prove he was the culprit, he admits to it but tries to pass it off as a prank gone wrong, finally settling on the charge of assault, hoping his connections will let him go free... only for Dee to remind everyone that as a judge in office, he represents the state and the will of the Emperor — and as such, assaulting him constitutes high treason, punishable by Cruel and Unusual Death (getting pulled apart by four buffalos).
- In the 87th Precinct novel Lady, Lady, I Did It, a shooter opens fire in a store and guns down four people. One of them happens to be Detective Bert Kling's fiancee, thereby guaranteeing that the crime has the attention of every cop in the city.
- In The Professional Killers by J.T. Edson, a pair of hit-men commit Murder by Mistake when they gun down a man who matches the description of their target as he gets off a train. It turns out their target had never got on the train and the man they killed was senior sheriff's deputy.
- The FBI's manhunt for Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs becomes a lot more intense when his latest victim to be abducted turns out to be the daughter of a U.S. Senator. There's never any indication that he knew who Catherine Martin's mother was, she just had the right body-type for his sick purposes.
- Worm has an interesting case. When the Undersiders attempt to rob a bank, the young super-villains take great care to plan it for when most of the heroes will be busy at a function across the city, and the teenage superhero team the Wards will be stuck in school, risking how many can be pulled out of class without raising suspicions on their secret identities. It's a good plan, unfortunately, one of their hostages happens to be Amy Dallon, the most powerful healer in the world, and someone the hero-community definitely wants to see safe. Almost all of the Wards show up immediately, including Amy's very annoyed older sister Victoria Dallon.
- Taken to another level when the villains discover that the robbery was a cover for their employer's kidnapping of a young precognitive, driving our main character to a crushing realization.
- In the pilot of Vegas (2012), a woman is murdered and her body dumped in the desert. The local sheriff is corrupt and the murder might be linked to the mob. Given this, the case would have probably been left unsolved, except the woman was the governor's niece. The governor threatens to send in the National Guard if Las Vegas cannot get a grip on its rising crime. This gives the mayor the political clout to appoint Ralph Lamb as the new sheriff.
- In Copper, a thief breaks into a house and discovers the body of a dead child inside. He is Genre Savvy enough to know that this makes the crime high profile enough that the corrupt police will not be able to ignore it, but not high profile enough for the police to bother with a proper investigation. Rather than becoming a Fall Guy and hanging for a murder he did not commit, he signs up on the next ship to leave port and does not come back to New York City for more than a year.
- The Killer of the Week in one episode of CSI was a meth-head who killed an off-duty cop because he thought the cop was sleeping with his girlfriend. Cop killers get an all-out manhunt in any jurisdiction.
- A minor example occurs on another episode: a school science teacher finds out the hard way that her husband is not only two-timing her, but has had a completely different family for years (including children), and has gone so far as using stuff he'd learnt from living with her and helping his children with her to help them, and decides to create a bomb to rig to his rental car and blow him to kingdom come when he goes off on one of his "business trips". The "unintentionally notorious" part of the Trope happens because, as the rented car had faulty clock wiring, it didn't explode until the man had already given it back to the agency and was picked up by a U.S. Air Marshal. It is mentioned a couple of times throughout the episode before she is arrested that whoever created the bomb will be tried as a terrorist.
- In one of the season finales of CSI: NY, the team are drinking in a bar when the place is shot up in a drive by. The first episode of the next series reveals that the attackers were just planning an elaborate extortion plot and didn't know there were police in the bar.
- Parodied in an episode of The Practice, a client in one case is a small-time thief who accidentally killed a man by hitting over the head too hard while trying to mug him. The victim happened to be a rabbi. The client was petrified with fear that he'd be charged with a hate crime and didn't seem to be able to understand that the homicide charge was much more serious.
- On Sons of Anarchy, this is a recurring problem for the eponymous biker gang. Their various illegal operations are highly profitable but require them to keep a low profile and avoid undue attention from law enforcement. This can be easier said than done for a bunch of violent bikers with anger issues.
- When they decide to sell some illegal guns to an old army buddy of Piney's, it turns out that his group of 'gun enthusiasts' are actually Right Wing Militia Fanatics and the weapons are used to kill two sheriff's deputies during a prison break.
- When the Sons go to confront some neo-Nazis, they end up storming into a fundraising dinner for a right wing political party. They are recorded threatening dozens of women and children while holding highly illegal weapons. They were actually set up by the leader of the neo-Nazis, who likes to provoke his enemies into doing stupid crimes and then having them arrested for it.
- When Tig is led to believe that a rival gang leader tried to kill Clay, he embraces Revenge Before Reason and opens fire on the gang leader in a public place in front of dozens of witnesses. He misses, but he accidentally kills the daughter of the most powerful and ruthless drug dealer in Los Angeles.
- There is an episode of C Hi PS where someone steals a car that had the owner's baby still in the car, escalating their crime from joyriding to kidnapping.
- A frequent event on Law & Order: Criminal Intent. The victim will turn out to be a judge or a cop (or the relative of a judge or a cop), the victim or suspect will have mafia ties, or the case will draw a lot of media attention. This is necessary to keep the crime in the Major Case squad, instead of being reassigned to another division.
- In season four of The Wire, a state's witness from a key case is murdered in an alley, right as long shot mayoral candidate Carcetti is making a big deal about the monumental crime levels of the city in general and the lack of protection for anyone who actually dares to testify against the drug gangs in particular. The resulting scandal is so damaging to the current mayor, and the timing is so perfect (coming just before the election) that it actually helps Carcetti win the mayoral election. After the election, the case is still unsolved and Detective Greggs continues to investigate - and discovers that the death wasn't a murder meant to silence the witness, but a stray round from two drunken idiots shooting at bottles two blocks away.
Detective Norris: So our guy's dead because a bullet misses a bleach bottle and this fuck Carcetti gets to be the mayor behind the stupidity. I fucking love this town.
- In the first series of Peaky Blinders, the Peaky Blinders rob the Birmingham Small Arms Company (BSA) factory with the intention of stealing motorcycles (yes, BSA made motorcycles). However, the thieves were so drunk that they didn't realize that the crate they took didn't contain motorcycles, but rather 25 Lewis machine guns and 100,000 rounds of ammunition, produced on government contract and bound for Libya. The guns quickly become a MacGuffin, with the government, the IRA, and the Communists all looking to get their hands on these weapons. Tommy Shelby uses the fact that only he and a few other Blinders know where the guns are to play all three of them against each other to effectuate the establishment of the Shelby family as a power in the British underworld—and in legitimate business (obtaining on-track gambling licenses for the races).
- In the Stitchers episode "Hack Me If You Can", "Black Hat" hacker Ellie catches her husband Derek, a fellow "Black Hat" hacker, cheating on her through the Bland-Name Product version of Ashley Madison. She fakes her own death and plots her revenge Best Served Cold. She hacks the website to steal their client list, framing her estranged husband. She then murders Derek by remotely tampering with his computerized insulin pump and arranges for the evidence to point at his girlfriend. Unbeknownst to Ellie, Derek had become a Boxed Crook for the NSA in the interim, so his body gets handed over to the protagonists for analysis. When Kirsten and Cameron pick up her trail, Ellie mistakes them for Amateur Sleuths and decides to Troll them. She doesn't figure out that Kirsten and Cameron are working for the government until they show up at her home with a team of agents to arrest her.
- A subversion in La casa de papel: the policemen think at first that the thieves didn't expect the daughter of the British ambassador to be among the hostages, but it turns out to be part of the plan all along.
- Games Magazine once ran a crime story where a cashier had only intended to steal seven bucks for a dinner date — only to find that she'd stolen several grand by accident. Making a desperate getaway, she breaks into a funeral procession — that turns out to be for a cop killed in the line of duty. Busted!
Cop: You know, Pat [Kelly, whose funeral it was] would have gotten a kick out of this collar.
- In Saints Row: The Third, the main cast robs a bank that they don't know is owned by The Syndicate. The Syndicate becomes the game's main antagonist.
- Michael and Franklin in Grand Theft Auto V end up escalating their criminal activities when Michael destroys the house where the tennis coach his wife is cheating with is hiding. The house belongs to a notorious drug baron, who demands that they work to pay off the reconstruction costs. Later, Trevor arranges for the trio to steal an unspecified piece of experimental military technology. After the heist succeeds, they're told the device is really some kind of nuke and if they don't put it back fast, they and everyone they ever knew will be on the government's kill list. They do put it back, without a hitch, so the only purpose of that was to ensure that Failure Is the Only Option.
- Utawarerumono Mask Of Deception: Nosuri "kidnaps" Anju in an attempt to help Anju invoke a Rescue Romance with her bodyguard. She assumes that that is all there is to it, just helping a young girl find love. When it comes out that Anju is, in fact, the Imperial Princess, daughter of the Empire's God-Emperor, and the "bodyguard" is the head of the Imperial Guard... Nosuri freaks out and flees, since a threat to the Imperial Princess carries an automatic sentence of death. Afterward, Anju is distressed to find that, while Oshtor and the others involved know that the "kidnapping" was fake, the Courts will still declare Anju's kidnappers guilty of treason and execute them, because a crime against the Princess is far too severe to ever ignore.
- In League of Super Redundant Heroes, small-time crook Cat-A-Pult decides to use his newly discovered trick of duct-taping guns to his cats so his cat levitation power will actually be useful and robs a bank with his gang. The robbery is a huge success and his gang is now rolling in money... at which points the news shows an interview with the most powerful superhero in the city, Asstronomous, who swears that he's now coming for him and his gang. They must spend the next few weeks wearing a Paper-Thin Disguise to pretend to be the title league of heroes while Asstronomous and his associates scour Shitropolis for them.
Cat-A-Pult: What smells like urine?
- In the Batman: The Animated Series episode "The Man Who Killed Batman", a petty criminal trying to score big, Sid the Squid, participates in a small-time drug run but (apparently) accidentally kills the Caped Crusader himself. This brings down the wrath of the entire Rogues Gallery, the police and the rest of the Gotham underworld (looking to take him out because they now see him as a large threat) on his head.
- In one episode of The Batman, a watchmaker steals a rare watch from his shop, setting off the alarm. In the confusion, he causes a major traffic accident. He's sentenced to 20 years and plans revenge after discovering he has the ability to rewind time for a few seconds. At the end, he realizes his plan killed his son, and this somehow supercharges his power, returning him to just before he took the watch. He leaves it there this time.
- There have been many incidents where somebody steals a car without realizing there is a child in the back seat, and thus accidentally becomes a kidnapper.
- The person who leaked Ashley Madison's servers was most likely trying to expose people guilty of Your Cheating Heart to their spouses, which in all honesty is mostly karmic justice... for most of its users. But in places such as Saudi Arabia, many people were using it to have homosexual affairs while they were acting as The Beard in their married life... and in Saudi Arabia and several other countries, homosexuality is punishable by death.
- Similarly, committing a crime with federal jurisdiction is always worse than the same crime at a municipal/local level. The feds have much more in the way of resources than a single police department could ever bring to bear, and federal crimes carry stiffer penalties. A person who commits a petty theft, and then takes it across a state border, can accidentally ramp up to a federal crime, or making the unwise choice to vandalize/steal from mailboxes, forgetting that the postal service is a government branch.
- In Spain, the penalty for pickpocketing is a small fine as long as the suspect only tried stealing a certain amount (or nothing, if they didn't actually manage to get anything). As a result, a particularly "successful" theft can easily be what gets a serial pickpocket sent to jail.
- Some robbers in Marbella, Spain cut a robbery short when they realized they were this close to pulling this trope. They tied up the lady of a house and threatened her with knives, but fled in terror when they realized she was the wife of Dolph Lundgren. Yes, that Dolph Lundgren.
- In 1991, a never-identified thief stole a laptop containing highly classified information about Gulf War operations. When the thief learned what he had stolen, he arranged for it to be anonymously returned, along with a note to the effect of "I'm a thief, not a traitor."
- There's an unconfirmed story: thieves stole Mr. Rogers' car from in front of his house, then looked at the papers and props, and returned it. In some versions of the tale, they actually included a written apology.