February 20, 2008, - 4:11 pm
By Debbie Schlussel
No, I’m not one of those anti-corporate liberals who rails against Wal-Mart just ‘cuz. But I am against certain practices of the big box stores, whether its pandering to extremist Muslims who won’t ring up pork, or selling clothing made in Syria (both of these are done by Target).
Still, this story makes you want to think twice about foregoing your local “mom and pop” store for the big boxes, and it’s not really about ideology. This nightmare could happen to you, regardless of your station on the political spectrum.
So, you bought an $8 item at your local Home Depot. They accuse you of shoplifting. But you show them your receipt. End of story, right? Wrong:
After Miami handyman Glenn Rudge was accused of shoplifting an $8 set of drill bits at Home Depot, he thought he’d settled the matter when he showed his receipt to prosecutors and they dropped the charge.
But a few weeks later, a law firm hired by Home Depot began sending him letters demanding first $3,000, then a total of $6,000, implying he’d be sued if he didn’t pay it.
In an escalating battle against theft, retailers are going after anyone suspected of shoplifting, turning over their names to lawyers and collection firms, who pursue the suspects for stiff penalties and split the take with the retailer.
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.
The laws are meant to help compensate retailers for money they must spend to secure their stores against crime and recoup part of losses when thieves are not caught, says Neal Tenen, a founder of Civil Demand Associates, a firm specializing in civil recovery. U.S. retailers lost more than $40 billion to theft in 2006, which equaled 1.6% of retail sales and was up $3 billion from 2005, according to the National Retail Federation, a trade group.
But people targeted describe a humiliating and intimidating process, with no way to resist short of hiring a lawyer, a costly step few are able to take. Once a person’s name is turned over to a collection firm, he or she is dunned with letters and often phone calls, which refer to lawsuits and sheriff’s visits and sometimes multiply the penalty by demanding “pre-litigation” legal fees. . . .
In the Home Depot case, Mr. Rudge, the handyman, had a set of drill bits poking out of his shirt pocket when he went through the checkout line at a Miami store in December 2002, according to a suit he later filed against Home Depot. After he paid $66 for his purchases, a security guard stopped him on his way out and asked him about the drill bits.
Mr. Rudge said he had carried them in, having bought them on an earlier trip to the store. After he kept insisting he was innocent, the guard handcuffed him, walked him to an interrogation room in back and took the drill bits. Mr. Rudge asked to call home to have his wife bring in the receipt but the store wouldn’t let him, he said in a 2003 suit in Miami-Dade County Circuit Court, since settled. Home Depot declined to discuss specifics of his account.
Prosecutors charged the handyman with shoplifting, then dropped the charge in February 2003 when he showed them a receipt for the drill bits. But about a month later, according to his suit, he got a letter from the Palmer Reifler law firm demanding he pay a little over $3,000 within 20 days.
He ignored the demand. Then he got a letter demanding an additional $3,000, as “pre-litigation” attorney’s fees, for a total of just over $6,000. If he didn’t pay, one letter said, the sheriff’s office would be called to notify him if a lawsuit was filed.
Mr. Rudge was doing some handyman work for a lawyer and showed her the letters. “I took one look and said, ‘This is outrageous,’ ” says the lawyer, Alison Harke. “These letters are designed to make people settle because they believe they are going to jail.” She filed a suit against the retailer, the settlement of which is confidential.
Home Depot said Mr. Rudge was pursued for such a large sum because of a data-entry mistake that recorded the price of a $8.09 drill-bit set as $1,008.09. The law firm then tripled that, which the Florida statute permits in certain cases. The retailer said it now has extra processes to make sure it seeks correct penalties.
Home Depot’s spokesman, Ron DeFeo, defended going after Mr. Rudge even though prosecutors dropped charges when he showed a receipt. “In Florida, no criminal conviction is needed to pursue civil demand,” Mr. DeFeo noted.
What they did to this man is ridiculous. And I would bet that this case is an extreme exception, but the article claims otherwise. In any event, unless a judge orders you to pay an amount to a company, don’t do it. This is NOT legal advice. Just common sense. Just because someone with a law degree says you must do something for them, it ain’t always so.
In general, I shop at Lowe’s, which I like far better than Home Depot. When I’ve brought tools from home, they’ve never stopped me for shoplifting . . . or even to see my receipt.
Apparently, this happens at Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue (owned in significant part by Saudi Prince Al-Waleed Bin Talal) and other retail chains identified in the story.
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