By Andrew Hosken
Most shoppers are unaware of civil loss recovery systems
For most people, the system of civil loss recovery has operated under the radar. The only clues are signs discreetly displayed in stores warning shoplifters they face a claim for compensation if caught.
But in the last decade, more than 500,000 people have received demands for hundreds of pounds from retailers via middlemen debt collectors after being caught.
No police caution or charge is needed and rarely do the small-time thieves end up in court. In fact, civil loss recovery is largely a response to what retailers claim is a failure by police.
In a report published today, the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) makes serious criticisms of the system, labelling it an alternative to the criminal justice system.
"Crime is wrong, period. But two wrongs don't make a right," says Richard Dunstan, Social Policy Officer for the CAB and author of its report on civil recovery.
"There has to be a fair and transparently fair system for dealing with crime. We have such a system in this country, it's called the criminal justice system. It consists of the police, the prosecuting authorities and the criminal courts.
"If retailers dissatisfied with that system want to take matters into their own hands, they have to do so using means that are transparently fair. The current practice of threatened civil recovery is not fair.'
The CAB criticises two firms subcontracted by retailers to pursue debts of business practices as "unfair", "deceitful" and "improper".
In response, the two firms, Retail Loss Prevention based in Nottingham and Dryden's solicitors in Bradford, claimed the CAB report was inaccurate and misleading.
One of those to receive a demand for compensation is Sue, a young mother detained by Boots store detectives in July after leaving without paying for a 60p fruit juice drink she says her one year-old took without her knowledge.
It wasn't long before she had a demand for £87.50 from Retail Loss Prevention.
"It's not like I went in there and stole it. My little boy took it from the shelf. He doesn't know what stealing is," she says.
"I told them I'm not a thief and they said 'well you've just stolen now.'"
The case is currently being reviewed by Boots.
More than 100 people approached Citizens Advice Bureaux around the country complaining about the demands they had received, mainly from Retail Loss Prevention, or RLP. The CAB claims it is the tip of the iceberg.
Frank Osei was dismissed from his job as a cashier at a London garage after a discrepancy of £7 was discovered in takings.
He was never accused of theft but lost his appeal against unfair dismissal. He has received a demand for more than £1,200 for the time and money spent on investigating his case by his employer, BP.
"It makes my life really miserable. It's a lot of money, £1,207. How can I pay this?" he says.
Others interviewed by Today also complained of punitively high demands, backed up by threats of court action and even inclusion on RLP's "database of dishonest incidents".
But Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes says that there is a deeper issue at stake. An alternative, informal, unregulated justice system, invented by retailers, is operating in the country, he says, which targets those least able to realize what's going on.
"People who may or may not have committed a criminal offence - importantly may not - are being caught and stung for large amounts that are unjustifiable,' he says.
However, the company running the largest civil loss recovery scheme insists that they operate fairly and, in most cases, people do not contest allegations of theft.
Jackie Lambert, RLP's managing director, insists the company operated fairly and, in most cases, people did not contest allegations of theft.
"Retailers are spending vast amounts of money to protect their goods and they want to encourage good honest customers into their stores," she says.
"If they cannot recover monies directly from the individuals causing those costs and indeed those losses, then everyone else in Britain is having to fund that and pay the price."
Only two cases from Dryden's solicitors are cited in the CAB report. The firm's executive chairman, Philip Holden, says they are very disappointed in the way the CAB has chosen to categorise the practices that Dryden's operate.
"We feel very strongly that they are grossly inaccurate and we act totally within the guidelines and not just the letter of the law but also the spirit of the law regarding the way in which we conduct civil recovery business on behalf of our clients," he says.
Retailers too stand by their use of retail loss recovery. While they would like to see more involvement from the police and criminal justice system, says Jane Milne, policy director for the British Retail Consortium, it is exactly that which is lacking.
"It's very clear that police priorities don't extent to all of the crimes that we face," she says.
"Therefore retailers have to take action through other means."