Mortified and terrified: I got stopped for shoplifting. What to do?
August 14, 2009 5:18 AM   Subscribe

Stopped and fined for shoplifting for the first time. What to do with the confusing letter I received, the non-responding phone #, and the fine.

Last week, I was stopped at a large grocery store chain for shoplifting a bottle of shampoo. Yes, things are that bad for me financially. I had never been stopped before. This is all new to me. The security guy stopped me quietly, took a report, and let me go. He said that I might be charged something by (the store), or I might not get charged, and that the issue would stay between me and the store. Today I got a letter that says that I must pay $275 in the next 7 days or I will be taken to court.

The letter says that according to the law, they can charge me up to $500, in addition to actual damages incurred (in this case, about $11 for the shampoo, but they took that back). It says "In this case, the actual damages equal (the cost of damage to)". Yes, that's exactly what it says. It further says if I want to settle without a civil matter, I should send $275 within 7 days. It later says, "Payment or non-payment of the amount demanded will have no effect on the criminal prosecution of any alleged theft by local law enforcement officials". That doesn't make sense to me, even after several readings. It gives a number to call, which I did, and I left a message and got no call back.

I want to find out if this amount is negotiable and if I have any other options. I do NOT want this to show up in any court action. I do not want anyone I know to EVER find out about this. I am mortified. Obviously, $275 is a difficult amount for me if I was caught taking an $11 bottle of shampoo, especially having no prior record whatsoever.

So I'm upset that there is a fine, and I take responsibility for my actions, but the (high) amount will make things even more difficult for more financially, and I fear these guys won't respond to my calls at all.

I know YANML, and please, I'm not looking for moral slapdowns (I feel bad enough as it is), but any advice would be appreciated.

You can contact me directly at if you want. Thanks.
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (32 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Ah hah, this sounds like Wal-Mart, and I further bet the law firm is Bennett and Deloney.

Do not call them again. Do not say anything to them if they call. Do not have any contact to them except via mail, certified receipt recommended.

Did you get a citation from the police? If not, this is not a criminal matter and I feel fairly certain telling you there will be no criminal prosecution as a result of it. My recommendation would be to simply ignore the letter. According to the lawyer of someone who was arrested for shoplifting at Wal-Mart, this law firm and Wal-Mart send these out all the time and rarely, if ever, sue because it's not worth the effort, especially for a small amount and if you are "judgment proof."

It sounds like you can't afford it, but if you can, I would find a storefront lawyer in your town, possibly someone that's a solo practitioner in a small office near you and ask if they'll write a "shut up and go away" letter. This shouldn't cost you more than $50-$100 and--this is the best part--they'll provide you with a few minutes of legal advice while they're at it.

Obviously, I am not a lawyer, hence the recommendation that you find an inexpensive lawyer just to make sure I'm way off base.
posted by fireoyster at 5:49 AM on August 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Google is also not your lawyer...but it does seem to have a variety of people sharing similar experiences (not always with satisfactory answers in the associated comments).

A Wall Street Journal article on the issue.
posted by gimonca at 5:50 AM on August 14, 2009

You did it and were caught. You are lucky the police were not called. I would look at the $275 as getting off easy.

Pay it and move on with life.
posted by nineRED at 5:50 AM on August 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you decide that you are going to pay the "fine" like nineRED suggests, I would make sure that you get something in writing that says that they won't go ahead and take you to court after they have your money. There's no point in paying if they give you no guarantee that you won't get taken to court.
posted by eatcake at 5:54 AM on August 14, 2009 [4 favorites]

I would look at the $275 as getting off easy.

I would not look at Wal Mart or their lawyers as a proxy for the state. Private entities don't get to levy fines.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 5:57 AM on August 14, 2009 [56 favorites]

From my earlier comment: My recommendation would be to simply ignore the letter.

I neglected to delete this sentence. You shouldn't ignore the letter, but do not deal with the law firm directly in relation to it unless you absolutely have to. If you can find an inexpensive lawyer, go with that. do you have a law school near you? Many times there are 1st and 2nd year law students who would, as part of their education and under the supervision of a certified lawyer, help you navigate these waters.

If, however, you can't afford or find a lawyer, sometimes shutting up is the best way to go, but it's not the ideal route if you're truly scared of the outcome.
posted by fireoyster at 5:58 AM on August 14, 2009

Walmart can't fine you. They can press charges against you in court, but as Ignatius says, they are a private entity and do not get to levy fines like a government entity. This is a legal matter and you need a lawyer. A nastygram from said lawyer is likely to cost less than $275. Do not ignore the letter, do not send them a check.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 6:17 AM on August 14, 2009 [6 favorites]

Private entities don't get to levy fines.

True, however, they can choose to involve the authorities (who CAN levy fines) and make your life hell in the process.
For me, personally, it would be worth it to pay and be done with it, rather than argue their right to fine me. You may be proven right in the end, but at what cost?
posted by nineRED at 6:24 AM on August 14, 2009

Look, in situations like this your first stop should not be Ask.Metafilter. Your first stop should be a search engine/the library/your local bar association. You say to them I need legal assistance and I cannot pay. Your reference service will give you a list of free, lowcost and sliding scale legal services. They may ask you a few questions for clarification, so they can refer you to the best service. The people at those legal services will know what you should do. They will help you or provide you with a self-help package. They will not tell anyone they helped you.

That WSJ article is good information, but how it shakes down where you live, and what your best course of action is, is something only a consumer law/poverty law/legal advocate familiar with your jurisdiction who has seen the letter itself can tell you.

It's a nasty, bullying thing that's being done to you. The shop is kicking you while you're down. So you need to make sure your response is the one that puts this behind you as quickly as possible.

and everyone reading this should find a free, lowcost, slidingscale legal services provider in your community and send them five bucks, or ten bucks or fifty. and those of you with a law license--even a 7-11 license--go, give them five hours or ten hours or fifty. Do it now. It's the least you can do.
posted by crush-onastick at 6:24 AM on August 14, 2009 [21 favorites]

The OP has given me permission to post the following information:

The store in question was not Wal-Mart.
Any jurisdiction-specific information should be directed at MA.
posted by lwb at 6:37 AM on August 14, 2009

"Payment or non-payment of the amount demanded will have no effect on the criminal prosecution of any alleged theft by local law enforcement officials".

The civil demand is an agreement between you and the store. If you pay the money, they will not take you to civil court. However, you could still be charged with a criminal (not civil) offence. It's not double jeopardy -- you can go to both criminal and civil court for the shoplifting. In the criminal court, the fine for shoplifting an item less than $100 as your first offence is $250. So I guess it's possible that the total outlay of cash could be $250 for criminal court + $275 for civil demand agreement.

I think a good question to ask (a lawyer) is, if you lose a civil court case for this, what is the total cost to you (do you pay court fees, their legal fees, etc., on top of a fine)? And, does it ever show up when people do background checks for employment and so on? The answers to these questions might help you evaluate the cost/benefit ratio and make a good decision.

Since you just got the letter today, and left a message, it's very conceivable that they've just not had time to call you back yet (as it's only been a few hours since your call).

Since you really don't want this on your record, I think you would be wise to get a lawyer. And, since things are this financially tight, you might look into different social services/programs to help you out.
posted by Houstonian at 8:13 AM on August 14, 2009 [3 favorites]

I am not a lawyer, but i have been stopped (and charged) for shoplifting. Obviously you should seek legal advice from a lawyer in your area. I did seek legal advice, but I can not speak to how well information regarding my case will carry over by analogy to yours.

There are a few things to consider here. The first is that, as many have said, a private company can not levy fines, nor can they bill you for some arbitrary percentage of their security/shrinkage budget (which is likely how they phrased it). You are under no legal obligation to pay it. I received a letter very similar to yours and was advised simply not to respond in any way. Now, in my case, the authorities had already been involved. In your case, the money they are asking for could be something of a bargaining chip. It is certainly possible that you can negotiate this payment down to something easier to swallow in exchange for them not pursuing the matter in court.

The other thing to consider is the circumstances your interaction with the security officer. You seem to be confessing intent to shoplift in your question, but you say he stopped you quietly. Were you still within the store? Did you confess at the time? It may well be that a not guilty plea could be successful.

And finally, though there are many reasons not to want a shoplifting charge on your record, if things really are so financially bad for you that you can't pay any sort of fine or settlement, and you present yourself well at court, there is a good chance the court will have clemency due to your financial situation, perhaps offering something like community service instead of levying a fine.

good luck.
posted by 256 at 8:33 AM on August 14, 2009

Some (mostly) good answers here.

I would google the name of the store and the name of the law firm who sent the letter. Find out if they really actually sue people. From the WSJ article linked above, it sounds like they rarely, if ever, do.
posted by drjimmy11 at 8:58 AM on August 14, 2009

Hullo hullo,

Not a lawyer, nor do I have any experience with shoplifting cases, but I do work for a legal aid non-profit and this website might be helpful: Especially if things are as bad for you as you say.

If they don't have anything that looks likely, call or email the Legal Services Corporation: They are on the national level and may not be able to help you directly, but they should be able to send you to free or extremely reduced cost legal services in your area, as they act as a reference for that kind of thing.
posted by WidgetAlley at 9:16 AM on August 14, 2009

I had an experience with this with one of my kids and Nordstroms. It was not a law office but an internal branch of Nordstroms. I called and worked out a payment plan. It seemed easier than the risk of Nordstroms giving their evidence (my understanding is that department stores have *very* sophisticated evidence gathering procedures designed by former detectives) to the police. Particularly for a kid who might have other issues with law enforcement, such that the evidence might actually be used some day.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:26 AM on August 14, 2009

It sounds like a scam that could be perpetrated by the security guard. He took down all of your information and may be padding his own wallet. The way he was acting does sound suspicious. If I were you I would take that letter down to the store manager and ask if they can shed some light on it. You could even take it the police department. You could call them anonymously first.

Calling a lawyer for advice is probably a next step but I would definitely check the first options which will cost you nothing.
posted by JJ86 at 9:46 AM on August 14, 2009

BTW, I hope you got a copy of the initial report from the security guard. If not when you do go to the store, ask for a copy. This will be a check to see if everything was legit.
posted by JJ86 at 9:49 AM on August 14, 2009

I assumed this was a security guard scam too. Until I read the linked Wall Street Journal article, and the key paragraph
There is little oversight of a system retailers call "civil recovery," created by special laws passed in all 50 states. With no proof of theft, the retailers demand money -- often $200 but sometimes far more -- and promise to avoid suing if it is paid quickly. Laws vary by state, but in general, retailers can demand these sums even if the item at issue was worth far less and was quickly recovered and put back on the shelf.
It seems outrageous for a company to shake down a suspect for cash, but apparently it's also legal and maybe even a necessary part of a process.

I don't know what the question asker should do. Hopefully a legal aid organization can give some good advice.
posted by Nelson at 9:54 AM on August 14, 2009

Here's a description of the New Yorker article I was thinking of which about the policies and procedures for theft detection by chain and department stores. If you have a subscription (or if a friend subscribes) you can register and read the article.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 10:05 AM on August 14, 2009

For me, personally, it would be worth it to pay and be done with it.

I believe the problem here is that there's no reason to believe that paying the fee requested will equal "done with it". At least not based on the parts of the letter posted.

Also: what a horrible, horrible system of laws to allow this. I realize that in this case the OP admits to stealing an item, but imagine a case where they did not. Then what?

It seems like legalized shakedown, all right.
posted by rokusan at 11:10 AM on August 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

JJ86: "If not when you do go to the store, ask for a copy."

I'm an ex-retail employee who was witness to a few security guard stops. FWIW, they often tell you that you can't enter their store again, maybe for a year, maybe forever, and if they see you, they'll call the police. Going back to the store may not be an option for the OP.
posted by IndigoRain at 11:12 AM on August 14, 2009

It seems outrageous for a company to shake down a suspect for cash...

One, not a suspect. They did it. They stole. Two, stealing is outrageous.

Eleven bucks for shampoo?! That's one reason you're broke. When you're low on cash, you do not get to have the fancy stuff.

For $275, you and the company are square. You don't get tossed into the legal system and you made amends. Sleep well, lesson learned. Don't turn yourself into the victim here.
posted by codswallop at 1:24 PM on August 14, 2009

codswallop, it seems you missed this part of the letter:

"Payment or non-payment of the amount demanded will have no effect on the criminal prosecution of any alleged theft by local law enforcement officials"

that means that payment does not necessarily make them "square".
posted by oneirodynia at 2:27 PM on August 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

It does make them square for civil charges, but not for criminal charges.
posted by Houstonian at 2:59 PM on August 14, 2009

It seems outrageous for a company to shake down a suspect for cash...

One, not a suspect. They did it. They stole.

So you trust Wal-Mart (for example) to be a sort of corporate tribunal? No trial, nothing? They can just accuse and ask for payment? I mean, if you accept that they must at least occasionally be wrong*, then how great is the law that allows this practice?

In this particular person's case, yes they have admitted here to actually shoplifting something, but if you can put the high horse aside, I don't see any good reason they should hand over $275 just because someone asked, without at least knowing what that really gets them. It's very unclear from the posted language, and responders here saying "pay it to get it over with" are making a leap of faith in this store's policy and/or integrity that some of us aren't willing to. How do you know that will get anything settled?

(Anecdata: I've been stopped for "shoplifting" twice in my life, about ten years apart. I didn't actually steal anything either time, nor have anything untoward in my possession. The first time I was flustered and confused and stupidly emptied my pockets and let some hired goon go through my things to prove that I hadn't stolen anything. The second time, older and wiser, I told a similarly-shaped goon to either go fuck himself, or call the police so that he could be really embarrassed by the result. And fired. But I can't imagine how many people would not bother fighting and just pay some money to stop the embarrassing scene if that was an option. And that cannot be a good thing.)
posted by rokusan at 4:53 PM on August 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Just because a settlement is offered does not mean a person must accept it. What they are doing is legal, and what they are doing is offering a choice:
1. Pay the settlement, and we won't take you to civil court; or
2. Do not pay the settlement, and we may take you to civil court.

If the poster did not shoplift, the best solution is to go to court. Then, the poster could tell their story, and the store could tell their story, and a judge would decide who is right.
posted by Houstonian at 5:00 PM on August 14, 2009

that means that payment does not necessarily make them "square".

It does make them square for civil charges, but not for criminal charges.

Fair enough, I did kinda miss that. I would be beyond astonished if they went after them anyways. Has anyone heard of case where that happened? Still, point taken.

So you trust Wal-Mart (for example) to be a sort of corporate tribunal? No trial, nothing? They can just accuse and ask for payment? I mean, if you accept that they must at least occasionally be wrong*, then how great is the law that allows this practice?

In this case I do trust the Whatever Corporation because the OP admitted stealing. If an innocent person was in this place, obviously, they'd need to fight it. Get the cops, courts, and consumer watchdogs involved.

The alternative would be for more companies to immediately call the police ever single time and put every single thief (or suspected thief) into the CJ system. Would that be an improvement? Doubtful.
posted by codswallop at 5:14 PM on August 14, 2009

Last week, I was stopped at a large grocery store chain for shoplifting a bottle of shampoo. Yes, things are that bad for me financially. I had never been stopped before.

I'm not wanting to play moderator, but I think this is why asking for legal advice here is a really bad idea. What you left here is basically an admission in writing that you actually stole that shampoo and that this might not be your first time. Indexed by search engines and anonymous as much as anything posted online (not).

I also sympathize, but still I think this thread should be nuked in your own self interest.
posted by _dario at 8:18 PM on August 14, 2009

Find a lawyer who knows the local prosecutors really well. Have him ask if there will be criminal charges from this incident.

If there will be, have that lawyer negotiate on your behalf to deal with the criminal action. Theft on your record is very serious.

Worry about the civil demand later.
posted by abdulf at 11:15 PM on August 14, 2009

Eleven dollars is pretty expensive shampoo for such hards times.

Don't send them any money. If paying doesn't have any bearing on the criminal case, you're not getting anything in return. They're basically blackmailing you.
posted by luckypozzo at 6:55 AM on August 15, 2009

I think (as a practical matter, not as a legal matter) that paying *does* have bearing on any criminal case. If the individual pays the civil penalty then the department store does not refer the information to law enforcement and/or even if law enforcement receives the information then the fact that the person paid the fine essentially means that law enforcement will never pursue the criminal case (and shoplifting is low priority anyway).

The store can't promise that law enforcement won't prosecute because law enforcement makes its own decision. And the individual could be someone of interest to law enforcement for some other reason.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 1:07 PM on August 15, 2009

I used to work for a grocery chain and have actually given these sorts of letters out. The chain I worked for gave them out at the time of detainment, not in the mail. Depending on the type of theft the amount of restitution demanded varied. Minors pay less, adults pay more, a set fee of $125 and $250 plus the retail value of whatever was stolen. The idea is the money collected helps offset the cost of paying for a security guard 24/7 and the cost of the high-tech camera equipment. Of course if the total was over $500 in stolen merchandise the whole restitution was thrown out the window due to it being a felony.

If the restitution was not collected then the evidence was turned over and criminal charges filed. Not sure about the company where you got caught but this one really did file charges for $1 candy bars (unless it was a minor). If the restitution is received no charges filed. The people who most often paid were the parents of small children and people with prior shoplifting convictions.
posted by M Edward at 12:15 AM on August 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

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