Shoplifters: When Retailers Demand Payment or Threaten to Sue

Some Retailers Seek Civil Damages from Accused Shoplifters

According to a 2016 National Retail Security Survey, the most likely retailers to seek civil damages from shoplifters are discount, mass merchandise, and super center stores. From 2015 to 2016, the survey found that there was an 81% in the number of retailers demanding payment from shoplifters. For whatever reason, in 2017, the survey found that the number of retailers seeking civil damages had dropped significantly.

All 50 states have enacted laws that allow retailers to seek civil damages from shoplifters. In Illinois, a retailer may demand monetary damages without regard to whether the accused shoplifter is found guilty of the crime. How much money a retailer can legally demand in Illinois is based on:

  1.  value of the merchandise, plus
  2. an additional amount not less than $100 or greater than $1,000, plus
  3. the retailer's attorney's fees and court costs.

One Shoplifter's Experience

I had a client who was arrested for shoplifting at Macy’s. As a first-time, youthful offender, my client was sentenced to supervision and ordered to pay $500. If he had completed his supervision successfully, my client would not have a conviction on his record.

Fast forward several years, my client had a job with a large discount retailer. He received a promotion. Because of the promotion, the employer ran his background. That's when the retail theft conviction surfaced. Instead of promoting him, the employer fired him. That’s when my client contacted me about helping him clear his criminal background.

When I looked up my client’s record I found that he never paid the court fine. My client insisted he’d paid it. As proof, he showed me a letter he’d received from Macy’s, acknowledging receipt of his final installment payment.

Instead of paying the court fine my client paid Macy’s $500, confusing the court's order with the retailer's civil demand letter. Given that the court fine and Macy’s civil demand were for the same sum ($500), my client’s confusion was understandable.

Retailer Civil Threats to Sue: Are They Crying Wolf?

It is estimated that 10% of civil demand letter recipients will, like my client, voluntarily pay the amount request out of fear of being sued. Retailers and their collection attorneys rely on this fear.

Is there anything to retailers' threats to sue? Anecdotal evidence suggests there is not. It costs money to file suit. It costs very little to send a threatening letter. A common tactic used to get your attention is to send not one but multiple, ever more threatening, demand letters. With each letter, the amount demanded goes up. Recently, a Macy’s shoplifting suspect received a demand letter from a collections attorney asking for $850 -- a $350 increase from the first letter sent four months earlier!

Will My Credit Rating Drop if I Ignore Retailer Demands?

If you choose to ignore a retailer's demand for payment, you need not be concerned that your credit rating will take a hit. As the law currently stands, a retailer has no legal grounds to report an unpaid civil claim to the major credit bureaus. A claim for damages is not an unpaid, reportable debt.

A retailer would have to file a lawsuit and obtain a judgment against you. If you refused to pay the judgment, the retailer would then have every right to inform the credit bureaus of your an unpaid debt (court judgment). In this instance, your credit rating would drop.

As threatening as these letters often sound, if past practice is any indication of future action, retailers have no plans to see you in court.