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Shoplifting laws favor retailers

| Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

NEW YORK — Outside the view of paying customers, people accused of shoplifting at Macy's 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 in the run-up to Christmas, claims of racial profiling at stores in New York have exposed the wide latitude that laws in at least 27 states give retailers to hold and fine shoplifting suspects.

“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.

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.

Usar's client, Ayla Gursoy, was detained in 2010 when 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.

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.

Lawyers say 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.”

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