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The Case of The Suspected Shoplifter

Would you confront them, call the cops or play it safe?

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IT WAS A typical, bustling day at Sharpview Vision. The reception area was full of people waiting for their appointments, so one female patient with a toddler started to browse. After perusing for a few minutes the woman sat on the floor in the optical area. By this time a few chairs had become available so sitting on the floor seemed somewhat odd. Kaitlin, who worked at the front desk, took note.

ABOUT REAL DEAL

Real Deal scenarios are inspired by true stories but are changed to sharpen the dilemmas involved and should not be confused with real people or places. Responses are peer-sourced opinions and are not a substitute for professional legal advice. Please contact your attorney if you have any questions about an employee or customer situation in your own business.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Carissa Dunphy has been working in private practice optometry since 2008 and is the founder of Optician Now (opticiannow.com). Follow Carissa on Instagram and Facebook at @opticiannow.

As Kaitlin walked through the optical, past the patient sitting on the floor, she reached the opticians’ desk area and whispered, “I wanted to give you a heads up that there is a patient sitting on the sales floor playing with her toddler. It’s kinda odd.”

“Thanks for letting us know,” said Chelsea, one of the opticians. “I’ll go touch base with her and see if she needs anything.”

Chelsea walked to the woman, still sitting on the floor. “Hi, I’m Chelsea,” she said. “Do you have any questions, or can I help you look at eyewear while you’re waiting?”

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The woman responded, “No thank you, I’m just keeping my son occupied before my appointment.”

“Let me know if you need anything,” Chelsea said. She stayed nearby and did busywork so she could keep an eye on her or answer any questions if they came up.

The woman began trying on sunglasses and asking her toddler what he thought of them. “Do you like these?” She would switch pairs and ask again, all while remaining on the floor and never looking in a mirror. She kept grabbing more sunglasses and had 10 or more pairs balanced all over her legs.

Chelsea approached her again and asked, “Can I take any of these glasses off of your hands?”

“No thank you, I’m just trying them on,” the woman replied.

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Chelsea went to her desk to update the other opticians. Her coworker Janet piped up, “I was watching this on the camera. Did you notice she’s wearing cargo pants with like eight pockets?”

Just then a technician came to the front and called the patient’s name. Chelsea saw that the patient had set the sunglasses on a table in the optical and began putting them away. There were now four empty glasses stands. She found the office manager, Ryan, and showed him. The two went to the opticians’ desk area, where Ryan asked, “Did any of you fill the holes in optical today or did that patient just pocket four pairs of sunglasses?”

Each optician began wondering if they had, and they all came to a consensus that because it was busy they were unable to remember. Janet said, “Every night the closing optician fills all of the holes, so we would have been squared up when we opened. None of us have sold any sunglasses today so it’s looking like she stole them.”

“I guess we will see what her pants look like and how she acts when she comes out of the exam room,” Ryan said. “I am uncomfortable confronting her since it’s a female patient. I don’t want any #metoo repercussions.”

The Big Questions

  • Does Ryan call the police during the suspect’s appointment so he can remain “hands-off” and the police can resolve any issues, or does he confront her himself. If so, how?
  • There are cameras in place. When they review the footage later, if the woman did steal, in addition to reporting to insurance do they notify the police?
  • Should the practice have a theft suspect policy in place or is each situation too unique to have a blanket response?
Johnny Ray D.
Lancaster, SC

Had a similar episode. I called my lawyer buddy while she was in the store. He suggested I do nothing, because if I was wrong, the damage could ruin me. You cannot accuse someone of stealing until they’re out the door anyway. I did not listen to my lawyer and addressed the issue of missing frames to her (without accusing her) and she broke down and begged me not to tell her mother and daughter who were with her. I got lucky!

Nancy C.
Cortland, NY

Have a dispenser ready for the patient coming out of exam room. Have a few other pairs for her to try. Steer her towards the dispensing table, excitedly exclaiming, “I know you have your favorites tucked away but I found these newer styles I felt you’d like to try, and we’ll take pictures for you to show/send to friends to assist with your decision.” Mention features of “the missing” that stood out. We know our boards and frames. Point out features on the ones you want her to try on. All the time hoping the missing frames magically appear with the dismissal that the “baby” must have put them there, ha! If nothing appears, know this patient probably cannot be trusted. Discuss further interactions when in the office. Review security tapes. Notify law enforcement if there is something on the tape.

Angel M.
Cynthiana, KY

We had a very similar incident. A man came in with cargo pants, filled them with four or five pairs of suns and left. Since it isn’t shoplifting until they leave with the items, we reviewed the footage, called the police, and they handled it. We got our retail price on all pairs back and he went to jail. What you might do in this situation is review the footage during her exam. If DEFINITELY guilty, when she comes out, have someone GENTLY remark that her toddler must have stuffed some sunglasses in her pockets. “You know how toddlers are!” This gives her an out and could stop a violent reaction. If she still leaves with the items, note license plate and description of vehicle and call the police ASAP. Do not pursue. She may not be guilty, so please don’t assume; some people are just weird or have no concept of how much money in merchandise they have laying on the floor or in this case, in their lap.

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Chris D.
Central Florida

If you didn’t see it you cannot “prove” anything. They have cameras so while she is in the exam lane check and see what you find. If she stole, give her a chance to return the glasses (after paying for the exam). If she refuses, call the police. If you check later and have evidence, then call the police and hand over a copy of the tape. If you can’t tell, err on the side of caution and keep a close eye out for the remaining time she is there. All offices need a protocol for this activity. An alert word or phrase that doesn’t sound like one. “Can you get me change from the back?” “Tell Becky [or other name of nonexistent employee] I need her help.” Something to alert others to pay extra attention to the suspicious activity. But the best line of defense is outstanding customer service. Thieves do NOT want your help. They want to be left alone. Always keep in sight. Smile. Be helpful and patient. They will wait you out and will pocket stuff when you finally get bored.

Jen H.
Sandpoint, ID

Talk to the suspect directly at the first opportunity. If Ryan is worried a woman will take that wrong, he can assign the task to Chelsea, or just buddy up with a woman for the task. The staff chatting amongst themselves worriedly are starting to overcomplicate something that may play out very cleanly. I’m remembering a situation where I realized a patient’s relative had pocketed a pair of frames during the patient’s appointment. I confronted both her and the relative (separately) with a direct but gentle question and received an immediate and apologetic response from both. The frames were handed back. The shoplifter probably had a high enough consequence from both individuals’ acute shared embarrassment, and the clinic didn’t have to go through any bad PR (which would result from cop cars and officers strolling about). Four frames won’t break a business! Don’t overdramatize it, just treat the suspect like a human and have witnesses.

Darla S.
Villa Hills, KY

If the frames had RFID tags then you could scan the patient with an RFID reader to know exactly what was in their pockets.

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