Shoplifting Law and Legal Definition

Shoplifting is a crime of theft governed by state laws, which vary by state. Businesses lose billions of dollars annually as a result of shoplifting. Shoplifting laws generally define shoplifting as taking or intentionally paying less for an item than the sale price. Shoplifting can include carrying, hiding, concealing, or otherwise manipulating merchandise with the intent of taking it or paying less for it. Shoplifting laws also may be defined to include changing price tags, committing refund fraud, removing a shopping cart or any other commercial property from a store location, or intentionally using an illegitimate form of payment. An intent to shoplift may be sufficient for a shoplifting charge to be brought, even if the shoplifting was not fully carried out.

A business owner or employee may typically detain a shoplifting suspect if they have probable cause. Probable cause in the context of shoplifting laws may consist of having direct knowledge of an offender’s approach, selection, concealment, movement and/or modification of an item, and his or her failure to pay and an approach towards the exit. If caught shoplifting, a person will be required to return the items, will be prohibited from entering the store for a period of time, will have parents contacted (if offender is a minor), and may be prosecuted through shoplifting laws.

The following is an example of a state law governing shoplifting:

2913.02 Theft, aggravated theft

(A) No person, with purpose to deprive the owner of property or services, shall knowingly obtain or exert control over either the property or services in any of the following ways:

(1) Without the consent of the owner or person authorized to give consent; (2) Beyond the scope of the express or implied consent of the owner or person authorized to give consent; (3) By deception; (4) By threat.

(B) Whoever violates this section is guilty of theft. If the value of the property or services stolen is less than three hundred dollars, a violation of this section is petty theft, a misdemeanor of the first degree. If the value of the property or services stolen is three hundred dollars or more and is less than five thousand dollars, or if the property stolen is any of the property listed in section 2913.71 of the Revised Code, or if the offender previously has been convicted of a theft offense, a violation of this section is theft, a felony of the fourth degree. If the value of the property or services stolen is five thousand dollars or more and is less than one hundred thousand dollars, or if the offender previously has been convicted of two or more theft offenses, a violation of this section is grand theft, a felony of the third degree. If the property stolen is a motor vehicle, as defined in section 4501.01 of the Revised Code, or the proceeds of a motor vehicle insurance policy, a violation of this section is grand theft of a motor vehicle or grand theft of motor vehicle insurance proceeds, a felony of the third degree. If the value of the property or services stolen is one hundred thousand dollars or more, a violation of this section is aggravated theft, a felony of the second degree.

Section 2935.041.

(A) A merchant, or his employee or agent, who has probable cause to believe that items offered for sale by a mercantile establishment have been unlawfully taken by a person, may, for the purposes set forth in division (C) of this section, detain the person in a reasonable manner for a reasonable length of time within the mercantile establishment or its immediate vicinity.

(B) (Is not reprinted because it refers to libraries, museums, etc.)

(C) An officer/agent, or employee of a library, museum, or archival institution pursuant to division (B) of this section or a merchant or his employee or agent pursuant to division (A) of this section may detain another person for any of the following purposes:

  1. To recover the property that is the subject of the unlawful taking, criminal mischief, or theft;
  2. To cause an arrest to be made by a peace officer;
  3. To obtain a warrant of arrest.

(D) The officer, agent, or employee of the library, museum, or archival institution, or the merchant or his employee or agent acting under division (A) or (B) of this section shall not search the person, search or seize any property belonging to the person detained without the person's consent, or use undue restraint upon the person detained.

(E) Any peace officer may arrest without a warrant any person that he has probable cause to believe has committed any act described in division (B) (1) or (2) of this section or that he has probable cause to believe has committed an unlawful taking in a mercantile establishment. An arrest under this division shall be made within a reasonable time after the commission of the act or unlawful taking.

3109.09 Damages recoverable against parent of minor who willfully damages property or commits theft offense.

Any owner of property may maintain a civil action to recover compensatory damages not exceeding three thousand dollars and costs of suit from the parents who have the custody and control of a minor who willfully damages property belonging to the owner or who commits acts cognizable as a "theft offense," as defined in section 2913.01 of the Revised Code, involving the property of the owner. The action may be joined with an action under Chapter 2737. of the Revised Code against the minor, or the minor and his parents, to recover the property regardless of value, but any additional damages recovered from the parents pursuant to this section shall be limited to compensatory damages not exceeding three thousand dollars, as authorized by this section. A finding of willful destruction of property or of committing acts cognizable as a theft offense is not dependent upon a prior finding that the child is a delinquent child or upon his conviction of any criminal offense.

For the purposes of this section, a minor is not within the custody and control of his parents if the minor is married. Any action brought pursuant to this section shall be commenced and heard as in other civil actions. The monetary limitation upon compensatory damages set forth in this section does not apply to a civil action brought pursuant to section 2307.70 of the Revised Code.

Additional Definitions


Shoplifting is the practice of stealing merchandise from retail establishments. Unfortunately, shoplifting is a serious and persistent problem for most retailers. The results of an annual National Retail Security Survey were reported in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. They found that shoplifting cost retailers an estimated $10 billion annually and that 30 percent of these losses are the result of organized retail crime. These professional shoplifters are of concern to retailers because they tend to steal higher priced items or work from the inside, through employees. Nonetheless, the fact that 70 percent of shoplifting losses result from unorganized stealing means that attempts to stop these losses must focus on both professional as well as casual shoplifters. Among the most commonly stolen items are tobacco products, athletic shoes, brand-name clothing, small appliances, jewelry, leather goods, and food items.

The costs of shoplifting are many. Most obvious of these costs are the losses suffered by retailers. The inventory lost to shoplifters is only part of the retailer's costs. They also absorb the costs of increased security measures and higher legal expenses associated with prosecuting the thieves. But shoplifting also costs the community in which it takes place by affecting store location decision. Stores in high-theft areas will often relocate and in so doing they end up contributing to the deterioration of these troubled areas. Finally, shoplifting costs consumers in terms of higher priced goods. "The cost [of shoplifting] is very high," said business professor Ed Mazze in Providence Business News. "It cuts into the profit margin of the retailer and is paid for by the consumer. It requires stores to invest in more complex security devices."


The first step for retailers hoping to reduce their losses to shoplifting is to create a strong antitheft policy and publicize it among customers and employees alike. In preparing a policy, it is important to note that deterring theft is usually less expensive than apprehending and prosecuting thieves. In addition, retailers must be familiar with the shoplifting laws in their states, particularly in light of recent incidents involving the assault of alleged shoplifters by store security guards. Some states require individuals to exit a store before they can be accused of shoplifting, for example. Experts suggest that small business owners consult with local police or their insurance company to obtain assistance in setting up an antitheft program.

In order to address the problem of employee theft, retailers can use integrity questionnaires and conduct reference checks when hiring new employees. In addition, software solutions exist to help retailers detect point-of-sale errors and fraud. Another way that small retailers can help prevent shoplifting is to buy merchandise from established sources. In many cases, professional shoplifters steal from major retail chains and then resell the merchandise to small, local stores. A good rule of thumb is that if you are able to buy merchandise less expensively than a big chain, then it is probably stolen merchandise.


Retailers have a number of security measures available to them to help deter potential shoplifters. A good place to start is by training employees to recognize and report suspicious behavior. Visible security measures are another valuable way to deter shoplifters. Security gates in doorways, security cameras in obvious locations, and uniformed security guards patrolling the store are all strong deterrents. Many retailers choose to reduce the temptation to steal by putting items that have high theft rates behind counters or giving them electronic article surveillance (EAS) tags. These methods have drawbacks, however, because limiting customer access to items reduces sales, while applying antitheft tags to items is labor intensive.

A relatively new weapon in the fight against shoplifting is the use of source tags. A source tag is a type of EAS tag that is applied by the manufacturer—usually inside the container or packaging—rather than by the retailer. The usage of source tags is growing, particularly in the areas of health and beauty aids and over-the-counter drugs. Some source tags can be used for both security and inventory control. In the future, the technology might even be used for tracing stolen merchandise that is resold to other stores. "Source tagging helps us provide our valued customers with low-cost products and the perpetual inventory they are looking for," Tom Coughlin, CEO of Wal-Mart USA, told Hallie Forcinio in Pharmaceutical Technology. "It allows us to enhance sales and focus our resources on how we can better serve our customers."


Feldstein, Mary Jo. "Retailers Turn to Technology to Thwart Bogus Returns." St. Louis Post-Dispatch. 14 December 2005.

Forcinio, Hallie. "Electronic Article Surveillance—Source Tag to Smart Tag." Pharmaceutical Technology. October 2000.

Mavromatis, K. Alexa. "'Tis the Season—to Shoplift." Providence Business News. 27 November 2000.

"Protect High-Risk Items from Shoplifters." Chain Store Age Executive with Shopping Center Age. June 1998.

Seigel, Larry J. Criminology With Infotrac. Thomson Wadsworth, 2005.

Wilson, William. "Being Prepared Is the Best Strategy Against Shoplifters and Robbers." Discount Store News. 3 April 2000.

                              Hillstrom, Northern Lights

                               updated by Magee, ECDI