A New, Seductive And Sinister Way To Be Unethical: Shoplifter Extortion For Profit


If you are accused of shoplifting in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Boston, Dallas, Houston, San Diego, Los Angeles, Miami, Atlanta, and a growing number of other cities, you may face an unexpected choice. If the store you were shopping in participates in a program operated by  the Utah-based Corrective Education Company, you will be asked to choose between talking to the police, with the risk of being arrested, or leaving the store without facing law enforcement, after you sign an admission of guilt and agree to pay $320 to take an online anti-shop-lifting course.


Slate informs us that about 20,000 people around the country have faced versions of this dilemma since CEC began operations, and chose option B—enriching CEC, and the stores as well. The interesting approach was started by two Harvard Business School graduates—that figures—and is sold as a win-win-win-win:

“It saves retailers time that they would have to spend dealing with the police; it frees up law enforcement resources that could be spent on higher priority cases; it reduces the likelihood that a shoplifter will come back to the store to steal again; and it gives second chances to offenders who would otherwise be saddled with a criminal record for life.”


It’s unethical you know. I wonder if the company knows?

I won’t say it isn’t clever, or that there will not be a lot of resistance to stopping it, but it should be stopped. Here are some of the reasons this sets my ethics alarms clamoring, and there may be more:

  • Threatening criminal charges to make the accused enrich the accuser is inherently unethical. It is the spiritual twin of extortion. CEC executives told Slate that “not one of the 20,000 people who have gone through their program were coerced into doing so. It’s all voluntary.”  That’s absurd on its face, maybe even a lie, since it’s hard to believe anyone thinks it could be true. “Do this or we call the cops” is not, has never been, and cannot be voluntary, any more than “Give me your money or I shoot you” is voluntary. That answer alone leads me not to trust CEC.

Well, that and the fact that it’s run by Harvard Business school grads.

  • Retailers can collect a cut of CEC’s $320 fee each time they present an offender with the option of signing up for the program, which means that retailers have an incentive to accuse people. True, if they are overly zealous, greedy, or blatant, it could hurt business, but when even a false accusation will net about 40 bucks for the store, accusations will become increasingly popular. You know how small communities give their police departments parking and speeding ticket quotas. I can see store managers imposing shop-lifting accusation quotas, if we allow this to continue and metastasize.
  • There is no judicial oversight, no protection against abuses, no right to counsel. This is a vigilante, private justice system, using the threat of the real system as leverage for profit.
  • How does CEC know that the retailers aren’t targeting minorities, juveniles, or those they see as easy marks for a deal, rather than genuine shoplifters? It doesn’t, nor does it appear to care. CEC has nothing to do with and accepts no responsibility for the approach retailers take in identifying suspects, an official told Slate: “We plug into the current policies and procedures of the retailer, meaning the loss prevention agents … are trained by the establishment, when they’re hired, on how to make those stops, and how to go about making those stops in the right way.” Translation: “It’s not our problem.”
  • On-line programs are of dubious effectiveness, and I doubt the exorbitant claims of the company that these seminars help participants learn how to get and keep jobs, avoid crime, and become better citizens. Six to eight hours of watching a canned course on a computer screen does all that, while the accused shoplifter is likely to be playing Kandy Krush or chatting on the phone? Amazing! Why don’t we replace all punishment with CEC on-line magic?

The win-win-win-win theory leaves out the wrongly accused along with the societal corruption arising out a system that benefits  wrongful accusers. That is sufficient to mark this ingenious development unethical, and a perfect candidate for the law to step in and un-develop it. For the law must step in when ethics fails, and it is failing here.


Pointer: Fred

Facts: Slate

24 thoughts on “A New, Seductive And Sinister Way To Be Unethical: Shoplifter Extortion For Profit

  1. Everything you wrote is great. But what I’d like to see is a discussion of how our legal system encourages this type of entrepreneurial company. Are we too harsh in our fines, penalties and sentencing that it’s cruel and unusual to use a heavy handed legal system for lesser shoplifting scenarios?

    For some reason, “Night Court” just popped in my head. Also – do people get sentenced to things like “5 days in jail”? Seems to me the only incarceration is in years anymore and fines don’t seem to send the same message as “5 days in jail” might. Imagine trying to explain that to your boss: “Hey – I’ve been sentenced to 5 days in jail, can I get some time off?”

  2. Totally agree. If the store’s getting a cut, and the buisiness is making a profit, it’s over the line. It sets up some perverse incentives.

    That said, I really would like a way to be able to convince someone not to shoplift without having to press charges and screw up the rest of their life (a time limit on the length a charge stays on the record would probably be a start- at least on the government side).

  3. I agree too. Although I don’t think most stores would ever have quotas.

    I know that stores like Kmart and Wal-Mart train employees to let shoplifters walk out the door sometimes rather than encouraging them to be crime-stoppers. Every time you confront a shoplifter, it’s a risky and dangerous proposition. Someone could get shot or punched in the mouth. That costs a business more than stolen merchandise.

    I’ll bet the 20,000 people trapped by CEC are disproportionately made up of women, kids, preteens, and unintimidating-looking men.

  4. It’s unethical.
    I see it as no different from the current legal system though, and arguably less harmful. The incentive for the innocent to take an inexpensive plea bargain vs a ruinously costly successful defence is too high.

    Still bloody awful. Wrong.

  5. Amusingly enough, this is the best bandaid version of what the Anarcho-Capitalists want as it fits into our current system…

    If that tells you all you need to know about Anarcho Capitalists…

  6. There is no judicial oversight, no protection against abuses, no right to counsel.

    Doesn’t the option to resort to the formal legal process provide precisely that (to the extent that that has it itself), just as the option to resort to trial by combat prevented the abuse of process in formal legal trials while it lasted?

    • Doesn’t the option to do something else provide the protections for the abusers of what you are doing? So, doesn’t the option of playing, say, croquet deal with the unaddressed head trauma issues of playing football?

      • I notice that you didn’t actually answer my question, so there isn’t any direct way to answer yours. So let’s take it apart and address various cases:-

        – If the option to resort to the formal legal process does not provide adequate “judicial oversight, … protection against abuses … [and] right to counsel” (at one remove), your further objection is moot as matters are already defective anyway (though, of course, you should establish that such is the case).

        – If the option to resort to the formal legal process does provide all that, then by virtue of the same fact there is no abuse to the individual involved, and so, derivatively, there can be no opportunity to abuse with unjustified accusations etc. as those could always be escaped (not only does your croquet analogy not fit the case but also it is begging the question to present matters as if it were established that there are abusers).

        So it’s back to the original question: is the fallback option adequate, both in being available and in what it delivers? I suspect that you accept that the legal process is sound, so you would have to argue its unavailability to argue the whole process’s unsoundness (my own feeling is that it’s the other way around).

  7. Seems fair to me. Then when the obviously unrehabilitated shoplifter fails the course, there is the choice between $500K and twenty minutes of waterboarding.

  8. So, unless I am mistaken, there is no opportunity to discuss this with an attorney, no due process, nothing that is even remotely compatible with a reasonable system of jurisprudence. Not only unethical, but, unless I miss my guess, illegal and unconstitutional. Sort of like offering a plea bargain BEFORE ARRESTING somebody.

    • That’s exactly what it is. It would be fair, if not sufficient to make extortion ethical, if the accused were allowed to consult with someone, a parent, a lawyer, a cool head, before having to sign a confession and agree to this coerced program.

      • Next step: “Notice: By entering into our store, you are agreeing that any disagreement between you and Evil Industry, Inc, will be settled by binding arbitration exclusively. Evil Industry, Inc. imposes a $500 fee for attempted shoplifting. If you dispute this, you will be bound, gagged, and whisked away (at your expense) to Evil Industries binding arbitration volcanic island where our arbitortrolls will automatically rule against you and slap you with a $10,000 arbitration fee to cover cost of services (travel extra). Please enjoy shopping at Evil Industry, Inc.”

        I think under our current law, that is actually legal (minus the sort-of-kidnapping part, of course).

  9. This is also done by Walmart! Unfortunately my then 15 y/o son and a friend thought it genius to lift some beer. They were caught, handed over to the police. after spending the night in jail, they were fined by a judge. The fine was paid and they went on their way.
    Two weeks later I, as the father, got a bill for $500 from Walmart to assure that they would not seek further damages. I was advised to pay the “bill” or I would be liable to cover Walmarts legal fees if I lost. Pure extortion.

  10. I’m going to play Devil’s advocate here, because I see potential in it. I’m not sure what the final answer is, but I’m not so offended by the premise. CEC is right, it will save the business time, it will free up police resources, and it will deter future shoplifting. But more than that, if I’ve read this right, it will also save the accused time, and a mark on their record. I think that the proceeds going to the business is where the premise falls off the wagon. I worked for a retail chain in Fort McMurray, AB…. And I don’t know if you’ve ever been (beautiful city, just far too many people on not enough road.), but there’s a perpetual parking problem. So what the town did was deputize (for lack of a better word) storeowners. We were able to issue legally binding parking tickets, and because we were issuing them on behalf of the city, we did not see a red penny from it…. But our parking problem fixed itself. And then the option is to either pay the ticket or fight it in court.

    If as opposed to collecting profits out of this program, businesses were able to make summary convictions with the option to fight in court, would this be ethical?

  11. I am a lawyer in South Carolina, and I think in my state, as well as in many others, this presents a viable cause of action for abuse of process, an intentional tort for which punitive damages could be awarded. Bring a case against these guys in front of the right jury, and you could ring the bell.

  12. Do any of you work in the LP field? It doesn’t sound like it. CECs program is legit. When a person is CONCLUSIVELY being detained for shoplifting, that is you’ve observed the subject approach, select, conceal, make no attempt to pay and exit, and you’ve lawfully brought them back in for said processing, they are then given a choice, PD involvement(when possible) if they have no ID then you MUST call PD, so no choice is given, PD is simply called. However if they have positively identified themselves, THEN the option is given for the diversion program. There are no dark room deals, no intimidation. Most people are honestly just so embarrassed they just want the ordeal over,which in my opinion is why they opt for the program. However conversely it is helping keep recidivism and court costs down. Always good news to taxpayers.

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