When someone has been detained by a store for shoplifting, the store can call the police and have the person arrested or cited to court for a criminal case. Or, they can let the person go, sometimes with a warning never to come back into the store and sometimes after taking a picture and other information. If the latter, it is unusual for the store to try to have the person prosecuted later, however, if the person returns to the store, they can claim that s/he does not have permission and can accuse the person of trespassing. If you are detained for shoplifting, you should consult an attorney to be sure of your rights.
Stores often send the information about the person detained for shoplifting to a private company that tries to obtain money from the person. There is a Code Section in the California Penal Code (Section 490.5) that allows a store to recover "damages" from the person (or, if a minor, from his/her parents). The damages can be claimed in an amount of from $50 to $500. Please note that the Code Section does not say that the person (or parents) have to pay the amount, only that the store can claim damages within that range. If the store wants to actually collect any amount under this Code Section it would have to file a lawsuit and prove to a court that there was a theft and that their damages amounted to some particular dollar amount.
How is the "Letter" Sent?
The store usually does not send the letter itself. Instead it contracts with a company that collects this data from several stores and uses computers to general thousands of letters to people who have been accused and whose information was sent over by the stores. The computer company often gives a small percentage of whatever they collect to a lawyer who will allow the company to use its letterhead. Most state bars prohibit lawyers from allowing someone to use their letterhead and there are probably some lawyers who actually supervise these letters. However, evidence suggests that many of these operations are simply automated and run out of other facilities. Some actually employ a call center to follow up with a phone call when payment is not made.
What Will Happen If the Person Does Not Pay
If a person simply ignores the letter, usually not a good thing to do in life in general, in this case probably nothing will happen. The company may send out a second computer generated letter or even have a person from the call center try to phone. But, especially if the person did not shoplift and was wrongly accused or the company is demanding several hundred dollars where there were no obvious "damages," the company will probably drop it. Even where they have a legitimate claim for damages, it is not worth their while to sue or spend a lot of time on the collection. They try to scare people into paying and, if it does not work, they drop them off the list and churn the rest of the batch. Now, of course, there might be a small store that sincerely seeks damages for a shoplift and they might find it worth their while to persist or even sue. But that is fairly unusual. And, if the store itself is making a reasonable request, it may be good reason for the person to pay it.
What to Do?
You need to talk to your own lawyer to determine what you should do in response to a letter like this. We cannot give legal advice here, just general information. You may decide that the letter makes a fair request. But, even so, make sure you talk to your own lawyer -- for instance, you would want to make sure that you got full credit for restitution if you made payments through a third party company. Also, companies like this are subject to a variety of state and federal laws regarding unfair debt collection practices and the unauthorized practice of law. If they do not follow the law, they can be subject to the laws that apply to extortion, RICO, mail fraud and other regular criminal code sections and, if they violated these laws, they could be sued or referred to state or local prosecutors. We are not saying that any particular company or lawyer whose letterhead is used has violated these laws. We are saying that they, like other businesses, must abide by the law.
Talk to your own lawyer. Your lawyer can advise you whether to pay the demand, refuse to pay it or ignore it. Your lawyer can advise you on whether to report any law violations to the proper authorities.
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