The 10 Most Common Questions Asked About Shoplifting
Shoplifters Have Questions
Apprehending shoplifters is an exciting field (ok, it used to be an exciting field) and I enjoyed the 16 years I spent in the loss prevention business. Although I left the field in 2009 to pursue self-employment, I still take an active interest in retail loss prevention and shoplifting and I read up on the latest trends and news and keep in touch with friends in the business.
Here are the top ten questions I've received concerning shoplifting.
(In the comments section at the bottom of this article, you'll be able to browse the many other questions I get asked about shoplifting, loss prevention, and internal retail theft.)
1. I was caught shoplifting at Kmart and they want me to pay a civil fine. What's this all about?
In some states, stores who lose merchandise to shoplifters have instituted a civil fine to help defray the costs of loss prevention operations, lost merchandise, etc. The average civil recovery fee in the United States is $250. The store (or chain) usually partners up with a law firm or collection service and splits the fee down the middle.
This fee will apply whether you have been arrested or not. The recovery people are relentless in pursuing this fee.
2. Can a store detective physically detain me?
Most of the big US chains have policies in place that prevent loss prevention agents from laying their hands on you (or chasing you, should you choose to run). These policies were created (supposedly) for the safety of the employees and customers, but is definitely a smokescreen to avoid lawsuits should a party get injured (or killed) during an apprehension.
If you are physically detained by management, store, or loss prevention employees, or pursued by store employees outside the company boundaries, you may want to discuss this with your attorney to discover if the stop was within company policy. Just because the law in your area may state that a merchant (or employees of the chain) can physically detain you, that doesn't mean that the store allows their employees to do so.
You can also be assured that if you choose to run (or walk away), the store will notify the police department and you will most likely be arrested.
3. How do I know if the store's loss prevention department will send me to jail?
You don't. The decision to prosecute depends on the store's policy, your actions during the apprehension, the dollar amount of the merchandise stolen, and the local police department's policy on misdemeanor shoplifting.
Some stores have a set policy on prosecuting cases. For example, if you steal $20 worth of merchandise at Kmart, you're taking a ride to the police station. The decision has already been made and there is usually nothing you can say or do to prevent it. Exceptions are rarely made.
I worked in a very high crime city for a large retail chain, where the local police asked us not to call them for anything under the amount of $250. Sticking a DVD in your pocket is a low level crime as far as the police department is concerned. They've got better things to do than bring you down to the police station to spend a couple of hours with you. A good LP department will work with the police department, no matter what the store's policy says.
Some police departments will just cite you and write you a ticket to appear in court on the charge. It all depends on your location.
Other reasons the store may call the police:
- You try to run away.
- You fight with or interact physically with loss prevention personnel, store management, or customers.
- You don't carry proper ID with you.
- You've been caught once before (or more).
- They suspect you've been stealing from the store for awhile and have not been caught until now.
4. I know I'm being followed, but I have already concealed merchandise in my jacket pocket. What should I do?
Get rid of it. Put it on a shelf and leave the store. It's called dumping the merchandise. No merchandise? No shoplifting.
Don't let the store detective/loss prevention people tell you concealment makes a case for shoplifting. It doesn't. Although there are some concealment laws on the books (depending on where you live), the big chains don't allow their employees to apprehend on concealment of merchandise. It's embarrassing to dump your concealed goods in front of an LP and exit the store, but it's 100 times more embarrassing to be arrested for shoplifting.
5. The LP claims they have me on video stealing. Don't they have to let me see the tape?
No. 99.9% of loss prevention detectives will not let you see video of your apprehension, although the police may want to see it (and usually do) if it is available. Sometimes they'll take a copy with them for evidence.
Most companies prohibit their employees from releasing video evidence to anyone, for any reason, without a release form approved by LP higher-ups. These tapes sometimes end up on the internet and increase liability for the store.
6. I was stopped outside and accused of shoplifting, but did not have any merchandise on me. They made a mistake. What should I do?
If you were stopped by an agent of the store, accused of theft, and did not have any merchandise on you, the employee(s) made something known in the business as a "bad stop." If this happens to you, please make mental notes of the following:
- What were you accused of taking?
- Were you touched in any way during the detainment?
- How many store employees/customers were present in the area?
You should ask for the person's name and position. You should also ask to speak with the store manager and ask for relevant phone numbers for LP and operational executives in the store. Don't say too much. Just explain the situation and be on your way, then contact an attorney as soon as possible to find out if your rights were infringed upon. Nine times out of ten, the store will attempt an out-of-court settlement. Sometimes it will be as simple as offering you an apology and a gift certificate. Talk to your lawyer before accepting any form of compensation.
7. I was 8 months pregnant and stopped for stealing a can of baby formula. Can Loss Prevention detain a pregnant woman?
Of course. An LP agent is expected to use discretion and store policy when it comes to making an apprehension. If you become sick or feel the need for medical treatment, ask the LP to call 911 immediately. The store doesn't want you to become ill or jeopardize your pregnancy, either.
Usually, senior citizens 70 and older and children younger than 7 are exempt from being detained by loss prevention. (This rule can vary by a few years, depending on your location).
8. I stole a small bottle of perfume from a package that contained three bottles. The store charged me the price for all three. How is this fair?
If you open a package, steal something from it, and leave the remainder, the store can no longer sell the package as one item, so they charge you the retail price of the one item as if you had stolen all three bottles.
9. I was arrested for getting a discount on a DVD player from my girlfriend who is a cashier at the store. Why wasn't she the one to get arrested?
You can rest assured that your girlfriend will most likely suffer the same fate as you. Under-ringing (or sweethearting, as it sometimes called) has been around forever. Most companies have strict rules against an employee ringing up a family member, spouse, or friend. That infraction alone could get your girlfriend terminated, but since the store had you prosecuted, you can bet they want to interview your girlfriend for an admission to this crime and others she may have committed in the past. If the store has enough evidence against her, she could be arrested and charged.
10. I dared my friend to steal some makeup. I handed her what I wanted and she took 2 items for herself. Why was I arrested, too?
Because even if you are not in possession of the stolen items, you took an active part in the shoplifting. You are being charged as an accomplice. Most stores will not charge another person who happens to be with the shoplifter when they steal unless they take an active part in the crime. You physically handed the merchandise to your friend, making you an accessory.
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Please be advised: I am not an attorney and I do not dispense legal advice. All I can offer you is my professional opinion, based on what you tell me. If you've been caught shoplifting, please consult a lawyer as soon as possible to discuss your case.