U.S. consumers have lately been expressing great annoyance at being stopped as they leave big box stores so a security guard can examine their receipt and match it with the merchandise they're carrying. Challenges to this odious practice often don't go well and consumers can wind up facing arrest.
The demands for proof of purchase have increased in the U.S. as shoplifting has risen in many parts of the country. In New York City, where shoplifting actually fell 10% in February over the previous year, Mayor Eric Adams has called for shoppers to take off their masks when entering stores.
“When you see these mask-wearing people, oftentimes it’s not about being fearful of the pandemic. It’s fearful of the police catching [them] for their deeds,” he said, in an interview on 1010 WINS, according to the New York Post.
But in Mexico, these post-purchase challenges are not a problem. Since 2021 Profeco – the Mexican consumer protection agency – has prohibited the procedure, saying it is an "unjustified act of annoyance" for consumers.
In addition, Profeco said, such a search goes against the rights of consumers and the Federal Consumer Protection Law, since it is considered an action that violates the freedom, security and personal integrity of users under the pretext of search or investigation.
Thus, in Mexico, consumers have the right to refuse to show their receipts upon leaving the store.
Profeco will hear complaints
If a store forces consumers to show their receipt, they can report the violation to Profeco. by calling the Profeco hotline at 5568 8722 or 800 468 8722.
Mexican consumers should remember that they have the right to refuse this practice and denounce it in case any store tries to force them to do it.
What about U.S. consumers?
This raises the question of what U.S. consumers should do when asked to show their receipts. Some stores – most notably Costco – ask everyone, so they can't be accused of profiling. (Unfortunately, Costco and most other membership stores have language in their membership agreement, giving them permission to search their members as they leave, so there is no avoiding it at such spots).
Practices at other stores vary widely. Some do it routinely but others seem to single out young people, minorities and "suspicious" consumers.
We asked the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to comment but they did not acknowledge or respond to our request. We talked to a few attorneys in private practice who offered their informal advice.
If you're at a non-membership store that checks everybody, the lawyers said, it's probably easiest just to go along and not raise a protest. Of course, the ultimate protest is to call the store manager later and say that you will not be darkening their door again because you don't like being treated like a criminal. You can also post your grievance widely on social media.
But in those cases where you feel you're being singled out – profiled, in other words – it's a slightly different matter. The legalities vary by state but one thing that's legal nearly everywhere is to politely decline to show your receipt and then begin to walk away.
If the security guard detains you – and assuming, of course, that you paid for everything in your possession – you would possibly have grounds for a wrongful arrest lawsuit.
"Am I free to go?"
The key question to ask in such a case is: "Am I free to go?" If the guard says no, you should then ask that the police be called, or call them yourself. When the police arrive, you can ask that the security guard be charged with unlawful arrest. If the police refuse, you can go to the district attorney and file a complaint, or seek assistance from your own lawyer.
Most attorneys advise that you not get into a debate about what's legal and what isn't. Don't try to discuss whether the Fourth Amendment's protection against unlawful search and seizure applies, or split hairs over state statutes. It's best to say nothing other than to ask whether you are free to go. The less said, the better.
If further questioned, you can – and should – cite your Fifth Amendment right to remain silent and ask that a lawyer be provided. Do not, under any circumstances, strike anyone or act in a physically threatening manner.
In the end, it's up to individual consumers whether they will put up with this behavior. The easiest and possibly most effective protest is the one outlined above: go along with it one time, then loudly protest by phone or email to the manager and on social media. Tell everyone you know what happened to you and urge them not to patronize that business.
Consumers have the power. They just need to use it.