Chicago Guide to Retail Theft Offenses - Part 1

Woman stealing Lipstick

In Chicago and in every city in Illinois, retail theft is the legal term that describes what is also commonly known as shoplifting. The Illinois statute governing this crime basically says that anytime a person does something that is intended to deprive a merchant of their merchandise in some way without receiving the full retail value of that item, it’s probably going to be considered retail theft. The law sets forth a number of possible situations which constitute retail theft such as:

Alteration of Price Tags or Labels

Whenever an item is offered for sale in a store, the store owner will label or tag that item with a price tag of some sort. It may be attached with a string, a plastic tag, or a sticker affixed directly to the item. But in any event, if this indicia of pricing is changed in some way, it will likely satisfy the prohibitions contained in this statute and constitute the crime of retail theft. Such situations may involve something as common as switching a tag from one item to another or coloring a colored dot on the tag to denote a sale item. In other cases, we have had clients that were much more sophisticated and produced brand new tags with the proper coding so that they would be scanned at a lower price.

Transfer of Packaging

Sometimes, a shopper will take an item out of its own packaging and place it into another package with a lower price. It could be anything from an item of electronics to an item of clothing. The merchandise might be substituted for another item that is similar but less expensive or it may be hidden inside another item’s packaging. A very common practice that store employees are always on the lookout for is when they spot a person buying a garbage can or a storage crate. They often look closely at these items because people will sometimes try to hide merchandise in these containers.


Almost always the result of a store employee who misuses his or her position as a manager or cashier, the offense of under-ringing involves an employee who purposefully misrepresents the price of an item when checking out or exchanging merchandise. It may occur when the employee is ringing up their own items (although most retail establishments have a policy prohibiting employees from doing their own transactions), or it may involve under-ringing of items for friends or family members. As most cashier stations are videotaped and as most stores require the cashier to sign in with a code to operate the cash register, the prosecution and police in many of these cases are able to produce video or computer receipts which may implicate the offender.

Theft of Shopping Cart

It’s not just items from off the shelf that may result in a criminal charge of retail theft in Chicago, but the theft of a shopping cart itself is specifically set forth in the Illinois criminal statutes. The law says that if a person leaves the “premises” of the retail establishment with a shopping cart, intending to “permanently deprive” the owner of the possession, use or benefit of that cart, then a retail theft has occurred. In criminal cases such as these, an experienced criminal attorney will explore the question of exactly what constitutes the “premises” of that retail establishment. Is it the parking lot? What if the store is part of a strip mall or large outdoor shopping area? Is a shopper not allowed to take the cart to an adjacent shopping mall? Clearly the intention of this law is to prevent people from stealing the cart and then using it for household projects or scrapping for metals, etc. But when legislators draft legislation, they must be very careful about the wording that is used so as to avoid trapping otherwise innocent people. It’s the job of a knowledgeable criminal attorney to make sure that this doesn’t happen.

False Returns of Merchandise

This type of retail theft involves a shopper who presents to the store an item that he or she says was purchased previously from that store and attempts to receive something in return which might include cash money, store credit or another piece of merchandise. The person accused of the crime may have just walked into the store and removed the item from the shelf, then walked it up to the return counter. Or it may have been stolen at an earlier date or time. Or it may not have even been purchased from that store at all. It may be a similar item that was purchased from another store, from Ebay or online, and the defendant may be fraudulently representing to the store otherwise. The accused may say that they lost the receipt and are only looking for a store credit or a gift card in exchange. Or they may present a receipt to the store but misrepresent that the item is the same one purchased on the receipt.

Hire an Experienced Retail Theft Attorney

Since 1990, the legal team at Mitchell S. Sexner & Associates LLC has been helping those accused of criminal charges including retail theft. In our next blog, we’ll detail additional types of Retail Theft offenses so that you can stay fully informed about Illinois laws regarding this important matter. Our office can be reached any time of day at (800) 996-4824 or by contacting us online for further information.

This blog is available for informational purposes only and is not considered legal advice on any subject matter. The blog should not be used as a substitute for legal advice from a licensed professional attorney, and readers are urged to consult their own legal counsel on specific legal questions.

Written by Mitchell S. Sexner Last Updated : December 30, 2021