Civil Demand Letters - Retail Theft - Shoplifting - In addition to or instead of criminal charges

Charles K. Kenyon Jr.

Written by

Criminal Defense Attorney - Madison, WI

Posted September 25, 2012

Civil Demand Letters are sent by law firms representing retailers about shoplifting incidents. Most lawyers recommend ignoring these even though there is a potential for a lawsuit. The person to whom the letter is addressed does not legally owe any money and paying can cause future problems.

What is a Civil Demand Letter? Where does it come from?

A Civil Demand Letter is a request from a merchant for payment for the cost of shoplifting prevention. It is often done instead of reporting a shoplifter to the police, but can be to parents of children, or even innocent bystanders. An amount substantially larger than the cost of the merchandise is demanded with a threat that even more will be sued for if the demand is not met. When there is no payment, a second and third letter is usually sent, demanding even more.

Does the person receiving the letter owe the money?

No, but they can be sued for it, because of these statutes. There is a link to the Wisconsin Statute at the end of this Guide.

I am a parent and received one of these demands about something my child did. Do I owe the money they are demanding?

No, but you can be sued for it. However, parents are liable for only twice the alleged damages, rather than the triple damages extorted from the alleged shoplifter. Again there is a limit of $500 on the extra costs that can be recovered.

Will paying this mean there will be no criminal charges or will it help with the criminal charges?

No. This is completely separate. If you pay one of these, you can't be required to pay restitution in a criminal case, but can still be charged fines and get a conviction record.

What will happen if I don't pay them?

They will continue to send a few more letters, again asking for even more. They can sue over this. They are threatening to sue. I know of no one who has been sued.

What will happen if I do pay them? Will the criminal charges go away?

If you pay them, they will stop sending you letters. Your name will be entered into a national database kept by retailers as a shoplifter. That database is also used by retailers to make hiring decisions. I do not know that you go in the database if you do not pay, but I suspect you do not. The payment acts as an admission which would help protect them from liability. Payment has nothing to do with criminal charges.

Conclusion - don't pay. There is no advantage to paying these letters.

Unless you want to pay someone a lot of money to stop sending you letters, don't pay. I've been practicing law since 1979. I've been asked about these letters numerous times. At first I advised payment, but now I do not. You don't owe the money. I've never seen or heard of anyone actually being sued in response to one of these letters. See my web page below for a longer explanation and links to some other lawyers who agree.

Additional Resources

See links below.

Civil Demand Letters - Retail Theft - Shoplifting

Wall Street Journal Article

Wisconsin Statutes 943.51 Civil Liability

Wikipedia "Civil Recovery Demands"

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