News Archive

Civil Recovery

by msecadm4921

Civil Recovery Solutions (CRS) has been going a couple of years in May. Mark Rowe met its MD, Jon O’Malley, to hear about which ways civil recovery is going.

Now if you find ‘solutions’ an over-used word, consider ‘analytics’. The data about cases – whether theft from shops or internal theft – can drive decisions by retailers or other businesses. What for example does the data say about peak times of day or week of incidents? Or region or individual store? Is a loss prevention or profit protection person deploying guards or covert CCTV in the right parts of a store? And what are the products stolen? How does that compare with the marketing data, from video analytics and people counting? Does it tell a retailer anything, if a desirable product is moved? How does an extra loss compare with the extra sales if a desirable product is put at the front of a store? Data can allow a client of a civil recovery company to make more informed decisions, it’s suggested. CRS and Jon O’Malley are coming at civil recovery from a financial services rather than a retail loss background. They will score a person – does the person have a mobile phone? That suggests a basic economic level. What’s the postcode? There’s databases out there that can judge by postcode how affluent you are and your propensity to pay a debt. And what’s the residential status? Owner, or tenant? In work or workless? Such data can point to likelihood of paying.

Briefly, civil recovery, in this country for a dozen years, is used by retailers and others to get back the cost of a stolen product plus security and admin costs. In December 2009 Richard Dunstan of Citizens Advice brought out a report ‘Unreasonable demands’, lambasting civil recovery companies, typically used by high street retailers. A second report, ‘Uncivil recovery’, followed in December 2010. It named besides CRS other civil recovery companies, notably Drydens and Retail Loss Prevention. In a line, Citizens Advice described civil recovery as unfair, arguably illegitimate, and no solution to recovering the (admittedly) high costs of retail crime. You can download the reports at www.citizensadvice.org.uk.

As background, it’s fair to say that Richard Dunstan’s first report, which had plentiful general media attention, ruffled and baffled people in the civil recovery field. The January 2010 issue of Professional Security published a digest of Prof Joshua Bamfield (one of the pioneers of civil recovery in the UK in the late 1990s) comments on the shortcomings and one-sidedness of ‘Unreasonable demands’ and, on a more personal note, Richard Dunstan’s unwillingness to engage with civil recovery companies; ironic as the ‘Uncivil recovery’ report makes much of civil recovery firms not getting back to people. Arguably the most pertinent of Prof Bamfield’s points was: if civil recovery is such a big deal, how come Citizens Advice didn’t mention it in their publications in the 2000s, before these recent two? That may suggest civil recovery is having an effect. Jon O’Malley says over coffee that the concept civil recovery is not overly difficult; how you do it, avoiding being disproportionate or unreasonable or uncivil, is what you have to get right. But, Jon adds, civil recovery makes total sense. “We know it [retail crime] isn’t a priority in certain areas, and we understand why. So this is a very good mechanism for recovering costs.” It should never be, he adds, one thing or the other – civil recovery, or a retail thief going to the police station and criminal court.

The Citizens Advice report among other things points to the high (in comparison with the ticket price of the goods stolen) security and admin costs. It works both ways; say an employee is found to have stolen £500 of goods; the employer goes through disciplinary procedure and as a rule the employee is dismissed. Besides the £500, the employer has to investigate (maybe with covert cameras?), do an interview, when the employee can have a colleague present; the employer has to recruit a replacement. The £500 may well be the least of the cost of the wrong-doing (and how often is the named and proven theft the sum of what was truly taken?). The Citizens Advice reports name much of the high street as using civil recovery firms. Jon O’Malley says that discount stores, too, are among users, and if they are selling everything for £1, the value of the goods to be recovered may well not be high – another criticism made in the Citizens Advice reports. A discount store runs thanks to high volumes; but if it employs security guards or CCTV, it has to pay the same rates as the rest of the high street. And as for the Citizens Advice complaint of teenagers having threatening civil recovery letters – what are retailers supposed to do? Let young people steal? Put up prices more so that in effect the law-abiding public pays for shop theft? The Citizens Advice are at pains to say that they do not condone theft; civil recovery companies, and their business clients, evidently have to walk a tightrope between getting their losses back and looking bad if they harass the juvenile or mentally unwell, for instance. Readers may consider how they view retail civil recovery compared with, say, recovery of (say) parking fines or consumer debt; and what internet message boards make of it. Is the public’s attitude that high street retailers can afford losses? Is it reasonable of a shopper or employee to steal?

Jon O’Malley says: “We are solutions-based; our clients set their own parameters.” You don’t want the potential bad publicity from pursuing a case against juveniles, that might appear intimidating? Or over a loss of less than £5? Or only if the police are involved? Set the parameter – and typically it’s the retail head of loss prevention dealing with the civil recovery company; sometimes head of audit, if an internal fraud has come up through an audit; or HR. What of the methods of getting in contact with the person you’re seeking recovery from? Phone, letters, both? Because Jon O’Malley stresses the aim is not to intimidate people but to get them to contact the firm to resolve things. How CRS seeks contact with the person depends on age. For late teens, texting brings a higher success rate. For those in their 20s, email (if there’s an address). For the over 30s, a phone call. It may also depend on whether the value is high or low. “It’s interesting when we talk about age of individuals, because there’s some sort of myth that everyone is under 16 that get reported,” says Jon, referring to a page of numbers in front of him. “If we look at the last 2000 cases, let’s say, which I just ran some numbers on, less than five per cent of these individuals were 14 or 15. Of which we then knocked out more than 10 per cent because they are invalid because they don’t fit the client policy rules.” A client may require only repeat young offenders or multiple thefts to be pursued. And as for the general grumble that police ‘never’ get involved in theft from stores. Jon points to the 70 per cent of cases where police are involved – called, and attending. So while police are far from turning up automatically, nor is there decriminalisation. And of those police-attending cases, about half the time the result is arrest. Next most likely outcome is a fixed penalty notice; then no action; and less likely still a caution or a warning.

“This is about mitigating costs, we are very clear about that,” Jon sums up. “Business incurs an unreasonable cost; it should look to recover those costs from the wrong-doer.” He suggests civil recovery does deter; in the first 18 or so months, he has seen ‘next to none’ repeat offenders. The latest Citizens Advice report suggests limiting civil recovery ‘to those cases involving serious, determined and/or persistent criminal activity for which there has been a criminal trial and conviction’. But that begs the question, what of all the low-value thefts, that do not come to trial? If police and courts cannot or will not handle them, what are businesses to do? And given the likely public sector cuts, might there be more uses for civil recovery? Jon agrees, though he does not want to give anything away. If anything, he adds, civil recovery will grow, given the economic climate.

What Citizens Advice says

On the December 2010 launch of the second Citizens Advice report on civil recovery its chief executive Gillian Guy said: “Citizens Advice does not condone crime of any kind or level, and does not underestimate the cost of retail crime, but in many of the CAB-reported cases, the alleged theft is strongly denied. The retailers’ threat of civil recovery has deeply unfair consequences and we are surprised that household names are prepared to risk their reputation in this way. Citizens Advice believes that if retailers, dissatisfied with the level of governmental action against retail crime, are to take matters into their own hands, they must do so using means that are legitimate and transparently fair. Our key concern with this practice is its reliance on intimidation, shame and ignorance of the law for its effectiveness. Many of the recipients of civil recovery threats are teenagers and many others have serious mental health problems, or are otherwise especially vulnerable. Claims by retailers that civil recovery helps to counter the cost of retail crime just don’t add up – the total amount ‘recovered’ by the agents for their retailer clients each year is, we estimate, less than 0.4 per cent of the total that crime costs the retail sector each year. Retailers should work with the Home Office, the police and other organisations to identify a range of legitimate and transparently fair alternatives to civil recovery which target crime committed by persistent offenders and criminal gangs. Civil recovery is a growing business but it would appear that the principal beneficiaries, in cases of low-value alleged theft, are the agents, who collectively profit by millions of pounds and have no obvious interest in a reduction in retail crime.”

For the full ‘Uncivil recovery’ report: www.citizensadvice.org.uk/uncivil_recovery

It follows the 2009 report ‘Unreasonable demands’: www.citizensadvice.org.uk/unreasonable_demands

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