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Hank Investigates

Mass. retailers shaking down shoplifters

Retailers in Massachusetts are changing the way they deal with shoplifters – and one lawmaker says it's gotten out of control. As Hank Phillippi Ryan discovered -- many stores have stopped calling police – and started calling their lawyers.

Fifteen year old "john" was in deep trouble.

"John"

It was a stupid decision on my part.

He'd swiped a two-dollar energy drink from a store shelf--and got caught by security.

"John"

I definitely realize what i did was wrong.

Helen says her daughter was caught in a store security mix up, claiming the teen was trying to take a shirt. But Helen says her daughter never left that store.

Helen

She wasn't intending to take it.

Both teenagers were stopped, questioned, and photographed by store security. Management banned them from the stores, but never called the police, or charged the teens with shoplifting.

Then came the letters.

Helen

I think it's very scary

Letters from a law firm about "an incident involving your child" and "shoplifting."

Helen

I was really upset

The law firm says it represents the stores and quote "we ask that you settle this matter by making payment to us" "within 20 days" or else "further civil action" could be taken.

Each letter asked for hundreds of dollars! John's mother told us she felt so threatened—she worried she was being scammed.

Catherine

It's just really wrong.

Actually, it's all legal. Mass law says when stores catch a suspected shoplifter, they can go after that person for fifty to five hundred dollars over the items value—even if the store got the item back.

State Senator William Brownsberger

It's a shakedown.

State senator William Brownsberger says stores and law firms are abusing the law to make money. He says two hundred fifty dollars for a two buck energy drink is too much.

State Senator William Brownsberger

The punishment's not fitting the crime at all.

He's filed this bill to change the rules—it caps the penalty at fifty dollars.

State Senator William Brownsberger

I can understand where the stores are coming from, but it's gotten ridiculous. And the goal of this bill is to dial it back to reasonable.

But the Mass Retailers Association argues—the current law is reasonable --and necessary to help pay for the 30 billion dollars shoplifters cost us stores every year.

Ryan C. Kearney, General Counsel, Retailers Association of Massachusetts

We don't see it as a shakedown. We see it as a mechanism by which they can deter and reimburse themselves for those costs.

Helen called the law firm and refused to pay—she's never heard from them again.

Katherine--ignored the original letter---and also plans to ignore this second letter, now asking her to pay $500.

Catherine:

And they can send me all the fines they want to and i hope i see my day in court with them and that would be great.

The law firm that sent the letters told us – they mail about a million a year, nationwide. They would not tell us how many people actually pay the settlement. And – what if you don't pay? The firm said it takes about 100-cases a year to court.