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Stores Have Free Rein to Recoup Shoplifting Losses

General View Of A Macy's Store

NEW YORK December 16, 2013 (AP)

Outside the view of paying customers, people accused of shoplifting at Macy's huge flagship store are escorted by security guards to cells in "Room 140," where they can be held for hours, asked to sign an admission of guilt and pay hundreds in fines, sometimes without any conclusive proof they stole anything.

As shoppers jam stores ahead of the December holidays, claims of racial profiling at department stores in New York have helped expose the wide latitude that laws in at least 27 states give retailers to hold and fine shoplifting suspects, even if a person hasn't yet technically stolen anything, is wrongly accused or criminal charges are dropped.

"You must remember, these people are not police officers; they are store employees," said Faruk Usar, the attorney for a 62-year-old Turkish woman who sued Macy's, which some customers say bullied them into paying fines on the spot or harassed them with letters demanding payment. "When they are detained, they are not yet even in a real jail."

Industrywide, more than $12 billion is lost to shoplifting each year. The laws, which vary on strictness and fine amounts, allow stores to try to recoup some losses. Under New York's longstanding law, retailers may collect a penalty of five times the cost of the stolen merchandise, up to $500 per item, plus as much as $1,500 if the merchandise isn't in a condition to be sold. A conviction is not necessary to bring a civil claim.

Some customers say stores have harassed them into signing admissions of guilt in order to turn a profit - not just recoup a loss.

Retailers don't divulge how much money they recoup but use it in part to offset security costs, said Barbara Staib, spokeswoman for the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention. The total is a fraction of what they lose, she said.

"We tend to forget that retailers are the victims of crime when it comes to shoplifting," she said.

But at least nine customers at the Macy's store immortalized in "Miracle on 34th Street" say in lawsuits that the retailer is abusing the law, wrongly targeting minorities and holding customers for hours, years after it settled similar claims brought by the state attorney general by paying a $600,000 fine and changing practices. That agreement expired in 2008.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is investigating the new claims against retailers. Last week, New York state stores agreed to post a customer "bill of rights" on their websites explicitly prohibiting profiling and unreasonable searches.

Usar's client, Ayla Gursoy, was detained in 2010 after she carried two coats in her arms up several flights of stairs in the flagship store, according to her suit. Store security accused Gursoy, who speaks little English, of trying to steal. She was asked to sign a form admitting guilt and pay a fine. She refused, the police were called and she was arrested.

Gursoy and others say they were held for hours in Room 140, a bare room with two small, barred holding cells with wooden benches within the store.

Elina Kazan, a spokeswoman for Cincinnati-based Macy's, said the company's practices prohibit coercion when recovering fines.

"Our policy of exercising our right to pursue a civil recovery payment is consistent with common practice in the retail industry and within the parameters of the law," she said.

Many retailers detain suspected shoplifters, industry experts said, but few have dedicated jail cells and most don't ask for payments on the spot like Macy's.

Most of the accused receive letters in the mail demanding payment from a law firm like the one used by Macy's, Palmer, Reifler & Associates, of Orlando, Fla. That firm also represents Home Depot, Wal-Mart and many other stores and sends out about 115,000 letters per month.

"We are confident in our clients' training processes and procedures for evaluating and investigating theft matters," attorney Natt Reifler said.

Letters sent to Gursoy said that if she didn't pay, she would be sued. One said she owed $400; the next said she owed $675 - the increase unexplained.

"We believe the whole purpose of her detention was to get the signature, to get the payments," Usar said shortly before his client's suit was settled in court Dec. 4. The terms were not disclosed. Her criminal charge was dismissed after no witness could testify.

In San Leandro, Calif., Jimin Chen accused Home Depot in a federal lawsuit of abusing the laws by shaking down customers to make an extra profit.

He said he was stopped in September by a security guard there who falsely accused him of trying to steal work gloves worth $3.99 that he had taken off the shelves and worn to load lumber into his cart. He said he was detained until he signed an admission of guilt.

Later, he started receiving letters demanding money; $350, then $675. Home Depot disputes the claims and has asked for dismissal.

Lawyers say that retailers rarely actually sue for the money, and they often suggest letter recipients don't bother paying because refusing won't affect their credit.

Generally, industry experts say, the laws allowing retailers to hold and fine suspected shoplifters are applied correctly.

"Retailers do a really good job of identifying where actual theft cases have occurred, and intervening and conducting investigations," said Joseph LaRocca, who runs RetaiLPartners, an industry group aimed at building partnerships between retailers and law enforcement. "There are always exceptions, but by and large, there are few mistakes here."

The racial profiling allegations started in New York this fall with a different retailer, Barneys New York, after two black customers said they were stopped while buying expensive merchandise. The retailer has said it does not profile, and neither customer was asked to sign a confession or pay a fine.

But the allegations grew to include Macy's. Among those complaining was Rob Brown of the HBO show "Treme," who said he was stopped after buying a $1,300 Movado watch for his mother this summer.

Brown, 29, said he too was taken to Room 140. There, he said in a federal suit filed by attorney Doug Wigdor, others being held were all "individuals of color." He was released, he said, when people realized he was a celebrity.

Kazan, of Macy's, said she couldn't comment on pending litigation.

Join the discussion

1000|Char. 1000  Char.
tammy1126 December 17 2013 at 1:29 PM

No state, county, city, or privatized laws supersede your constitutional rights. Corporations can make any policy they want but that does not make their policies constitutional. City's, counties, and states can pass any laws they want but again, that does not by default make those laws constitutional. Until and unless they are challenged they will continue to abuse their power. Know your rights, stand up for them, and when needed - fight for them. Knowledge is power, know your rights!

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1 reply
queuedeskimo tammy1126 December 17 2013 at 1:39 PM

DITTO TAMMY! In these days you need to be wise as a serpent.

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Shelley December 17 2013 at 9:50 AM

I just remembered something from yesterday. I was standing at the produce department watching a lady feeding her face full of grapes. Isn't that shoplifting?

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Shelley December 17 2013 at 9:47 AM

If you don't leave the store without paying for it, in my opinion, then you haven't done anything wrong. Going from one floor to another, to me, does not sound like shoplifting. I believe it is the Store Security person wanting so badly to be an authority figure and have some power over others. Just like a schoolyard bully. They can't get into the Police Force for some reason, so they have to get their thrills arresting people in department stores. I have known of people being 'arrested' for trying to match a color of their own blouse to skirts on a rack, then placing their shirt back in their bag. If you don't see an item selected from a shelf or a rack or a whatever, in the first place, you have no right to assume an item is stolen.

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1 reply
Marguerite Shelley December 17 2013 at 9:56 AM

you are so right, many security guards are overzeolous trying to prove something because they are waiting to get onto the police force or cant get in because . of their obvious issues. i have never seen a sign on stairs or escalators that say you cant bring merchandise from one floor to another. it just seems macys is bullying people to make up for sales losses

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2 replies
debij Marguerite December 17 2013 at 10:13 AM

We had one in Sam's that follow around employees - my 80 year old mother who worked for a contract company inside Sam's was grabbed by store security and accused of shoplifting because she picked up an OPENED pack of scissors, intending to bring them to customer service, but had to put them back down to do her job. The store security said - with no evidence - that she opened the pack, and took a pair out. She was not found with the scissors - she had a pair but they were ones she had previously purchased. They put her in a room and treated her like a hardened criminal, eventually calling her supervisor, and multiple people came in and out while she was there, all being told her "story" (as told by the store security). Not one took into account that this person also accused her previously of shopping while on the clock - however had missed the fact that she wasn't working that day and have never clocked in, she was just in the store shopping. He had been made a fool of and was constantly watching her to find her doing something wrong. He also was in danger of being let go because he hadn't met his quota of shoplifters. If something stinks like fish, it usually is.

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pjarizona Marguerite December 17 2013 at 10:15 AM

I think this story just lost them a lot of customers. Me for one.

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mgkz28 December 17 2013 at 9:37 AM

i thought you had to leave the store with the item for it to be shoplifting
if not we are all shoplifters every time we put an item in our cart or carry it around the store

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2 replies
debij mgkz28 December 17 2013 at 10:06 AM

I used to do security in King's Department Store. I received NO training whatsoever. I had to ask the local police what constituted shoplifting legally. I was told that to hide the item with the intent to steal is concealment, but you can't pick them up until they are on the other side of the cash register - which it the proof that they intended to steal. If they are not on the other side, they can put it down at any point and would not be guilty.

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rini1946 mgkz28 December 17 2013 at 10:14 AM

that what I was thinking

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mjmjupiter December 17 2013 at 9:30 AM

I understand that stores are ripped off regularly but to imprison or detain a person who you have no proof of shoplifting should be a serious crime, just as it would be if a stranger held you a gun point.
What happened to our rights of "innocent until proven guilty"?

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jnsmill44 December 17 2013 at 9:30 AM

I once walked out of Walmart with an Item in the cart, that I forgot to pay for, it was covered by the bags that I paid for, I returned to the store with it, and was asked for the receipt, which I didn't have and received a little flack over it. I tried to explain to the greeter what happened, and finally got it through his thick head as to what happened, rater than go through all the rigmarow I just handed it to him and left the store, hoping somebody would try to stop me, they didn't.

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1 reply
Marguerite jnsmill44 December 17 2013 at 9:51 AM

no good deed goes unpunished

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excontroller December 17 2013 at 9:20 AM

It is APPARENT, from this article, that "The BUSINESS WORLD" has been given FAR too much leeway, regarding laws that are ridiculously UNCONSTITUTIONAL! If they REALLY ARE even on the books, these "laws" don't pass Constitutional muster. It is NOT in the purview of a business to either "apprehend" NOR "fine" individuals. It becomes "illegal detention".....and "blackmail".

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1 reply
EnolaGrey excontroller December 17 2013 at 9:53 AM

Any citizen can apprehend a suspected person, make a citizen's arrest, and detain the suspect until Police arrives. I'm sure this is the theory behind stores detaining suspected shoplifters. I agree about "fining" individuals, though. Unless it is specifically allowed by state or local laws, I see no justification for a business levying fines.

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kcanpa2_kenneth December 17 2013 at 9:17 AM

The corporate/persona has the ability to make its own rules. They know they are the only bully on the block. The corporate.persona trusts no one because they do what they can to shoplift from its customers and take advantage of weaknesses. The corporate/persona has a shoot now, ask questions later; oops, collateral damage.

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2 replies
cshae89546 kcanpa2_kenneth December 17 2013 at 9:26 AM

If only they really were the "only" bully on the block. The fact is people can make a choice not to shop at Macy's or not do bisiness with any private corporation. There is only one real bully in Americaa. Try not paying your taxes or purchasing health insurance that doesn't comply with ACA regulations or driving a commercial motor vehicle without the governments Commercial Drivers License or etc., etc., etc. and you get a real education about bullies.

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1 reply
frankbvt cshae89546 December 17 2013 at 10:05 AM

OK, cshae, how about you try driving your bully-registered vehicle on all the roads private citizens and corporations have built. How about using that corporate-supplied water from the tap and flushing your human waste into that privately-funded and corporate-sponsored sewage treatment facility in your community. And while you're at it, try calling on that privately-run firefighting force and police force that protects you in time of need. Or seriously, if you're really so concerned about that bully government, why not call for the elimination of the military, which as everyone should know, is the largest socialistic organization in America. Please, you anti-government types just amaze me.

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Chris kcanpa2_kenneth December 17 2013 at 11:20 AM

do you realize how much money we spend on security? if people were honest there would be no reason to bully....

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APSR Music December 17 2013 at 9:15 AM

This sounds to me more under the category of false imprisonment? I don't care what their dirty little law says the constitution trumps their unjust laws atleast from a law standpoint! They don't have authority to pass laws that's unconstitutional!

I know if they ever held me on phony suspicions I wouldn't sign anything, let them hold me & as soon as they released me? I'd sue their asses off for false imprisonment! They SHOULD always have to prove you steal anything before they start unlawfully detaining people for long periods of time....Then I'd NEVER shop with them again & tell EVERYONE I KNEW NOT TO NEITHER!

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sacrsherry December 17 2013 at 9:09 AM

i am shocked that ..no proof..and your kidnapped...

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