December 17, 2013

In Focus: Are shoplifters being shaken down?

Some cry foul over the detentions and fines lawfully employed by a New York City department store to counter a costly crime. Now, some customers are fighting back in court.

By Colleen Long
The Associated Press

NEW YORK — 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.

click image to enlarge

A security agent walks the floors at Macy’s in New York last week. At Macy’s flagship store, shoplifting suspects may be held in cells, pressed to sign admissions of guilt and asked to pay fines on the spot. But "we tend to forget that retailers are the victims of crime when it comes to shoplifting," an industry group's spokeswoman said.

2013 AP file photo

click image to enlarge

A security agent checks the bags of a shopper at Macy's in New York. Claims of racial profiling at department stores in New York have helped expose the practice in more than 40 states of retailers holding shoplifting suspects and assessing fines, even if a person hasn’t yet technically stolen anything. At Macy’s flagship store, suspects are held in cells, asked to sign an admission of guilt and pay hundreds in fines.

AT A GLANCE

MALL COPS?: As shoppers jam stores for the holidays, claims of racial profiling at department stores in New York have helped expose the latitude that laws in at least 27 states give retailers to hold and fine shoplifting suspects, even if criminal charges are dropped. BIG PICTURE: Industrywide, more than $12 billion is lost to shoplifting each year. AN EXAMPLE: 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.

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.

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.

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