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Rip Unravels Family's Shopping Trip

By John Kelly
Friday, December 16, 2005

The manager at Urban Outfitters seemed awfully frosty when I got her on the phone. She runs the Urban Outfitters store at Tysons Corner Center, but she used to be the manager of the Urban Outfitters on Seventh Street NW, and I wanted to talk to her about something that happened there in June.

But she immediately got defensive. She gave me the phone number for the Urban Outfitters head office and then said: "I can't speak to you about it, and if you pursue me -- if you keep trying to contact me, now that I have given you the company's number -- I will regard it as a form of harassment."

As it happened, nobody from Urban Outfitters would return my calls. And after you read this story, you might see why.

Tina is a graphic artist and mom from Greenville, S.C., who was in Washington over the summer visiting her sister. Tina doesn't want me to print her last name because she's mortified by the whole episode I'm about to describe.

On June 15, Tina, along with her teenage son, her 11-year-old daughter, her sister and her sister's kids were shopping downtown. They had already bought some stuff in Urban Outfitters but were still browsing. Tina's daughter had her heart set on an $80 Lacoste shirt. Tina said no, but the girl's aunt said she would buy it as a gift.

The girl went to the dressing room to try on the shirt a second time. But Tina noticed a rip in the collar seam, near the security tag. She says she returned the shirt to the dressing room attendant and pointed out the rip. Then they left.

They were standing on the sidewalk in front of the store discussing where to go for lunch when the manager came outside and asked if they would return to the store to sign a form indicating that they had pointed out the damage to the attendant, thus exonerating the employee.

Tina thought this was a bit odd, but she did as she was asked. "I thought I was doing her a favor," Tina said.

When Tina got to the manager's office, however, the story changed. The manager accused Tina's daughter of trying to remove the security tag, an offense equivalent to shoplifting.

Tina was dumbstruck. What proof did they have that her straight-A-student daughter did it?

What proof did Tina have that she didn't, the manager countered. Employees had found a pile of security tags near where the girl had been seen.

It sounded to Tina as if her family was being accused of stealing all sorts of stuff, so she invited the manager to search her bags.

She declined. Tina then offered to just buy the shirt, which, you'll recall, had never left the store. But the manager said Urban Outfitters would not sell damaged merchandise. She produced a piece of paper and said Tina could go if she signed it. Signing it, Tina said she was told, meant that her daughter -- who at that point was "freaking out and crying" -- could no longer shop at Urban Outfitters.

Said Tina: "I said I'll sign the stupid papers if it means we can't shop here anymore."

If she'd read it more closely, Tina would have seen that the paper was a confession, admitting to shoplifting and leaving open the possibility of further legal action. A few weeks after returning to Greenville, Tina received a letter from the law firm Palmer, Reifler & Associates demanding a $150 "civil penalty." The letter noted that Tina could pay by check, MasterCard, Visa, American Express or Discover.

Tina paid up for the same reason she signed the paper: She didn't want her daughter to go through any more trauma.

"It ruined our whole vacation," Tina said of the experience. For months afterward, Tina's daughter was scared to go into a store, afraid she would be accused of stealing.

I'm sure people shoplift from Urban Outfitters. The store has to be vigilant. But are its employees qualified to serve as police, judge and jury? Whatever really happened -- and I would love to hear the other side -- I see a whole lot of reasonable doubt in this case.

"I should have fought her from the beginning," Tina said. "I should have refused to go with her. I just had never had any experience with this."

Tina filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau. Because the retailer failed to respond, it has an "unsatisfactory" record, said BBB President and CEO Edward Johnson .

I was able to reach the law firm that Urban Outfitters uses. Attorney Natt Reifler declined to comment on Tina's case. He said courts typically favor these sorts of out-of-court settlements.

Tina admits she should have read the form more carefully before signing it.

"I don't even care about my $150," she told me. "I just don't want this to happen to anyone else."

My advice: If someone from Urban Outfitters asks you to go back into her store, run like hell. Even better: Don't go in there in the first place.

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