Business

High Street shops take justice into their own hands

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Media captionAdrian Goldberg on the latest weapon against shoplifters

"Basically it's threatening people and bullying them for a ridiculous amount of money. If they had a case to fight why haven't they taken me to court?"

Paul Findlay went into the B&Q store in North Shields last May to buy a cable for the new HDTV he had bought to watch the FA Cup Final later that day.

As he was leaving the store with his purchase, security guards stopped him and accused him of purposely putting a more expensive cable into a box with a cheaper price.

Mr Findlay says he was looking at cables, but distracted by his children running around, he put the wrong cable in the box.

He was accused by staff of purposely putting a cable worth £19.98 into a box with a tag of £18.16 - a difference of £1.82.

Speaking to the 5 live Investigates programme, he said: "It was an honest mistake. If I didn't have my kids there it wouldn't have happened, I was just flustered.

"I had been at work the night before, I wanted to get back to watch the match."

The police were called to the store, and Mr Findlay was arrested and immediately bailed.

However, after watching CCTV footage and considering Mr Findlay's explanation, they told him they would take no further action. It seemed that he was vindicated.

Demand for damages

Two days after the incident, Mr Findlay received a letter from a company called Retail Loss Prevention (RLP).

Acting on behalf of B&Q, RLP demanded £137.50 in damages to cover the cost of dealing with the incident - such as staff costs and administration.

RLP works for a number of major High Street chains, pursuing so-called civil recovery claims against those accused of theft from shops. Such claims are often pursued without the involvement of the police or criminal courts.

Citizens Advice estimates that about 600,000 civil recovery letters have been sent out over the last decade.

The introduction of civil recovery was not based on any new law. Instead, companies such as RLP have made use of existing civil law. Its dramatic growth has so far received little public attention.

According to letters seen by the 5 live Investigates programme, RLP usually demands £87.50 for items allegedly stolen worth less than £10 and £137.50 for items worth between £10 and £100.

Citizens Advice believes thousands of people who are accused of stealing petty amounts are being charged unreasonable sums for shops' losses.

Richard Dunstan, social policy adviser for Citizens Advice, says in many cases it seems there was an honest mistake on the part of the alleged shoplifter.

B&Q declined to comment on Mr Findlay's case. However, Jackie Lambert, RLP's managing director, defends the practice.

The civil recovery market is unregulated but Ms Lambert says agencies follow clear guidelines to ensure civil recovery is open, fair and transparent.

She says the work of companies such as RLP has become necessary.

"Many thieves are not prosecuted in the criminal courts," she said.

"Retailers are increasingly having to take responsibility themselves to redress this balance."

This view is echoed by the British Retail Consortium (BRC). Tom Ironside, of the BRC, told the BBC: "At a time when police resources are being cut, it's vital retailers are able to take this action as retail crime costs £ 1.1 billion per year."

Heavy handed

Richard Dunstan, of Citizens Advice, says: "We don't dispute that shoplifting is a serious problem and we are not condoning it but recovering costs do not justify any means."

Citizens Advice says civil recovery letters are threatening court action and unpaid damages are being pursued by debt collection agencies, even though there may have been no criminal charge.

Furthermore, the details of the accused may be entered on a national database of individuals involved in civil recovery incidents. Such records can be accessed by retailers and prospective employers.

John, from south-west London, was incensed when his two sons received letters from RLP demanding damages to cover the cost of investigating the alleged offence of changing labels on wallets in a High Street shop - an accusation John's sons deny.

But John was most worried about the threat in the letters he received that his sons' names would appear on the national database of civil recovery wrongdoers.

"I thought that might harm their future life chances," he said. "They were going to be on this blacklist for five years."

Image caption The British Retail Consortium estimates retailers lose over £1 billion each year to shoplifters

Jackie Lambert, of RLP, says: "The primary purpose of civil recovery is to deter future incidents of crime. Indeed, it is a proven deterrent with less than 3% of wrongdoers being involved in future incidents."

Ms Lambert says the work of civil recovery agencies complements that of the police.

However, the police have concerns over the way civil recovery companies sometimes operate.

Assistant Chief Constable Allyn Thomas, of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), says:

"Some retailers feel frustrated by the courts and the police who see shoplifting at the lower end of offending, and we support their efforts to remedy that, but the problem comes when some companies respond disproportionately.

"It would be wholly inappropriate if individuals were being brow beaten into an admission of guilt."

ACC Thomas says anyone subjected to continued and inappropriate approaches from civil recovery organisations should report the matter to the police.

The Law Commission is due to launch a consultation this spring on unfair consumer practices. Civil recovery will be included in their inquiry and this could lead to a recommendation for future legislation.

You can hear the full report on 5 live Investigates on Sunday, 9 January at 2100 GMT on BBC Radio 5 live.

You can also listen again on the BBC iPlayer or by downloading the 5 live Investigates podcast.

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