Shoplifting -- A Gateway Crime to Extortion?

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The two master criminals – 13 and 12 years old – were in the Forever 21 clothing store on Gessner when they made their move. They grabbed some merchandise and stuffed it in the 13-year-old’s backpack. It was to be the Crime of the Century, more ghastly than the specter of Charlie Manson kidnapping the Lindbergh baby and using it to beat Ron and Nicole to death.

They almost got away with it – almost.

The store’s shrewd “loss prevention officer” spotted the dastardly duo trying to split with the stolen merch and stopped them in their tracks. Parents were called. Hands were wrung. But, amazingly, no charges were pressed.

Fast-forward from that February incident. The moms of the would-be shoplifters get calls from Palmer, Reifler & Associates, which Forever 21 and retail giants like Wal-Mart and Walgreens use to curb “shrinkage” (that’s what we in the retail industry call theft). Even though there weren’t any charges, and the merchandise was returned intact, the firm was demanding the women cough up $780 a piece – or else face possible litigation.

Sound like extortion? Well, it’s actually called “civil recovery,” and retail interest groups have lobbied to make sure that some sort of civil-recovery law is on the books in every state. Civil recovery ostensibly allows stores to get back at least some security costs; the firm takes a percentage, and the rest goes back to the store.

But Joanne Gillis, the mother of one of the conspirators in the Forever 21 Incident of Aught-Eight, is questioning whether she should pay. After weeks of ignoring the calls from the firm, Gillis says she called today to find out why exactly she owes money, since no charges were pressed and no suit was filed. But Gillis says the Palmer Reifler representative she reached either couldn’t, or wasn’t willing, to answer specific questions about the incident.

“She didn’t want to answer any of my questions – like, I said, ‘What was the date in February?’” Gillis says. “And she gave this big sigh and wouldn’t answer it….I said, ‘Well, I’m a single mother…and I don’t have that money right now.’”

It could be that the firm’s representatives aren’t used to answering questions; it appears that, generally, people are scared enough or annoyed enough to just pay up.

But some folks are fighting: attorneys are seeking class certification in a federal suit against Palmer Reifler, recently filed in Miami. According to the Orlando Sentinel, the suit was filed on behalf of a Pennsylvania woman whose 15-year-old daughter was accused of trying to steal a pair of sunglasses from a J.C. Penney store. Attorneys for the woman say that, although the daughter was never convicted of shoplifting, Palmer Reifler demanded $477. The Sentinel states: “The suit accuses [the firm] of harassing and intimidating suspected shoplifters into paying large penalties, even if they have not been convicted of a crime.”

We couldn’t reach a Palmer Reifler spokesperson, but a 2007 firm newsletter discusses the firm’s relationship with Forever 21.

The newsletter quotes Tom Vecchiarelli, Forever 21’s Corporate Loss Prevention Manager: “We have been very pleased with the initial results of working with this law firm. They were able to take some of our old uncollectible cases and generate substantial recoveries for my company.”

The newsletter also states: “Where some retailers or their third-party collectors may only send one or two letters in their attempt at collection, Palmer, Reifler & Associates…strives to deliver a positive outcome on every case through its comprehensive collection process.”

So shoplifting tweens beware: The next time you get caught jacking that costume jewelry or Hello Kitty lunchbox, Palmer Reifler’s going to be on your ass – and they’ll be wanting a positive outcome!

-- Craig Malisow

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