Shoplifting contractors

by scotslawstudent

Shoplifting is a big problem for shops and no one can really agree on the proper way to deal with it. There is a policy in some stores in the US of contractual private sector bag and receipt searches. This is pretty controversial but the idea is that the 4th amendment only restricts governmental searches and if you do it nicely enough you can get everyone to show that they’re paying for everything they’re taking out of the store and nothing gets stolen. I think it puts a weird burden on your customers to provide evidence that they aren’t robbing you. That seems like a business strategy that Alan Sugar shouts at you for on the Apprentice.

Self help

As a matter of theory there is a difficulty in that shoplifting is a crime and therefore it’s not something that you sue over. Many people who have asked the police for help have likely heard the words “it’s a civil matter”, and well, conversely crimes are a police matter.

Complicating this is the lack of eagerness in the police to deal with what is, fundamentally, not that a big deal in the grand scheme of things. Prosecuting shoplifting is not exactly chasing international criminals and it’s natural that officers, particularly the talented and ambitious ones, will want to deal with “proper” criminals. Another problem is the issue of being able to get their stuff back from the police quickly so that they can then re-sell it — for example, perishable food is often stolen.

To get around this some companies have adopted a self help measure by employing private “security firms” to “levy” “fines” to people they “catch” “shoplifting”. I’ve been liberal with the quotes in that last sentence because this is a hugely informal arrangement working on suspicion rather than proof. It seems that they have employed the Child Catcher (one in four cases involve teenagers, mostly under 17) to leap out whenever the gates beep and demand money. It seems incredibly lucrative work.

Are they right?

Probably the poster case for the issue with these searches is Kim Molloy. Molloy is hardly a classic stereotypical shoplifter in that she is a police chief inspector. I can tell you that she, in “an act of forgetfulness rather than dishonesty”, accidentally took a pot of foundation worth £12.72 from a branch of Tesco Express. I am able to say that because that is what the judge said when she was cleared in a criminal trial. The security firm wanted £137.50 from her.

The Guardian does some good coverage of the statistics involved with this practice:

  • In 67% of 300 cases analysed, the goods were worth less than £20, and
  • in 79% of cases they were recovered in store for resale – but
  • the average demand was £147.69 including the costs of “dealing with the incident” as well as the goods stolen.

I’ve already discussed this practice in relation to file-sharing claims and these claims are pretty similar in many ways. These offers are great and even standard opening procedure if you are a hard bitten practising lawyer who can look at threatening claims and not blink. If you are absolutely anyone else they are suitably terrifying. Remember, we are dealing with a situation where there is an average demand about 10x the usual actual loss (and the actual loss is recovered immediately in most cases). That means the main winner looks to be the company that hassles people outside the shop — those “dealing with the incident” fees add up quickly.

Does that sound familiar?

H/T: The Guardian

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