While you and your friends may not think of shoplifting as a serious issue, merchants and storeowners in Pennsylvania and across the country lose millions of dollars a year in stolen or intentionally damaged merchandise. Additionally, businesses spend a great deal of their potential profits on theft prevention devices, surveillance cameras and security guards to protect their products. You may also have seen signs in retail establishments warning would-be shoplifters that they prosecute such actions to the fullest extent possible.

Business owners and managers often instruct their employees to notice the signs that someone is attempting to steal merchandise. However, in many cases, those employees receive no real training. Because of this, you may find yourself sitting in a retail manager’s office facing accusations of retail theft.

What is shoplifting?

Simply put, if you take merchandise without paying for it, you are shoplifting. This may include merchandise placed on display or held in storage areas of an establishment. Even employees can commit retail theft by taking items from stock rooms or failing to pay for items they consume or use. The law also names other actions that a merchant may report as retail theft, including:

  • Switching, changing or removing labels or price tags
  • Moving merchandise from one container to another to pay a lower price
  • Breaking or removing security tags or inventory control devices
  • Ringing up items for less than the price, if you are a cashier

It’s a myth that store security can’t stop you or accuse you of shoplifting until you leave the store. In fact, if a police officer or store employee discovers unpaid-for merchandise in your pocket, purse, bag or clothing, the law considers that merchandise proof of your intention to steal it. Even if someone only suspects you of shoplifting, the laws of Pennsylvania permit a store employee, business owner or security officer to detain you for the following reasons:

  • To obtain information from you about your identity
  • To confirm your identity
  • To confirm that you have unpaid-for merchandise in your possession
  • To reclaim those objects
  • To contact police
  • To begin the process of pressing charges against you

If you find yourself in this situation, don’t assume you will get off lightly. Even for a first offense of an item under $150, you may face a fine, and the penalties increase for multiple offenses and items that are more valuable. While the laws protect merchants from losing profits, you still have rights to protect, and one of those rights is to seek legal advice.