How Far Can Security Go to Stop Shoplifters?

By John Honovich, Published on Jun 27, 2010

Can stores post images of suspected shoplifters on their store walls and demand significant fines? Is this defamation and extortion or simply an aggressive way to stop shoplifters?

Video surveillance and on-site security are common measures to address shoplifters. Generally, they are used in conjunction with the police and legal system.

A June 2010 NY Times article examines a trend where aggressive storeowners basically take matters into their own hands. A few key quotes:

"[Suspected shoplifters] are photographed holding up the items they are accused of trying to steal. Finally, workers at the store threaten to display the photographs to embarrass them, and to call the police — unless the accused thieves hand over money."

"New York State law allows “shopkeepers’ privileges” that fall somewhere between the prerogatives of the police and a citizen’s arrest. The law also details “civil recovery statutes,” by which retailers may use the threat of a civil lawsuit to recover substantial settlements for even minor thievery. "

Additionally, the NY Times reports that this is a practice used and transferred from China to the US.

Part of makes this so interesting is that this practice almost certainly 'works'. Those who do steal now face major negative consequences both in terms of reputation and financial impact. On the other hand, the risk that this violates privacy, due process and the law is high. What safeguards exist to protect those from shopowner mistakes or targeting innocent people?

Almost 300 reader comments to the NYTimes article [link no longer available] shows divided opinion on these risks with a strong contingent of commenters expressing a common American sentiment that this is the shopowner's right to do so.

Contrast this to the European approach and it's quite clear that this would be illegal in most Northern European countries. The clearest example of this more stringent approach is the UK's Data Protection Act. Indeed, the UK has an Information Commissioner's Office [link no longer available] dedicated to monitoring and enforcing such policies.

Where the 'line' is drawn almost will certainly depend on the country. However, this practice is an interesting case of how far one is willing to go in the security and surveillance methods.

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