A Value City department store official denied yesterday that his store videotapes customers in dressing rooms, although a federal lawsuit claims that store security guards told a woman they had secretly taped her before accusing her of stealing an $8 belt.
"We don't now, never have and never will have videotapes in dressing rooms," said Bob Roberts, assistant manager of the discount store on Baltimore National Pike.
On Thursday, Mr. Roberts declined to comment when asked about a lawsuit brought by a 60-year-old Baltimore schoolteacher who claims she was falsely charged with stealing her own belt after she bought $253 of merchandise.
The woman, Roberta A. Sharper, a science teacher at Frederick Douglass High School, said she was accused by guards in March 1991 of stealing a belt she had owned for more than three years.
Mrs. Sharper, who filed a lawsuit Thursday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, said she had taken a belt from a skirt she was wearing and wrapped it around a beltless store dress to judge how well it would fit. Mrs. Sharper said she put the belt back on her skirt and bought seven dresses and two belts from the store.
She said she bought $253 of merchandise and was leaving the store when guards accused her of stealing her belt. The guards told that her the belt belonged to Value City and was worth $7.99 and that they had videotaped her removing the belt from a garment in the dressing room, the suit charges.
Stores are prohibited by state law from videotaping customers in dressing rooms without the customer's consent, said Deputy Attorney General Ralph S. Tyler.
Paul Walls, personnel director for the Value City discount store chain in Columbus, Ohio, said the company prohibits employees from videotaping or otherwise secretly watching customers in dressing rooms."That is not our policy," Mr. Walls said. "Whether we might have a lone ranger running around with a video camera, I don't know."
None of the clothing and department stores contacted by The Sun -- ranging from discount merchants to upscale shops -- said it videotapes dressing rooms, and some of them were aware of state laws forbidding such a practice.
"You're looking for a big-time lawsuit if you do that," said William E. Ceglia, manager of the J. C. Penney store in the Security Square Mall. Mr. Ceglia said that he would not be surprised if some stores videotape customers and that an overzealous security worker might try to coerce a confession from a suspected shoplifter by telling him that he was caught in the act on video.
"We wouldn't even permit an employee to suggest that," Mr. Ceglia said. "If we saw it happen with one of our employees, a person would be let go for saying that."
Sandra Keating, a spokeswoman for the T. J. Maxx clothing chain in Framingham, Mass., said the stores rely on their staff to prevent theft. She said employees count items as customers enter and leave the dressing rooms. "The dressing room is really for our customers to feel comfortable while trying on the merchandise," she said.
Lola Abt, manager of the Saks Fifth Avenue in the Owings Mills Mall, said that while she doesn't know what happens in other stores, "We just honor people's privacy, and that's that."
Richard T. Miller, vice president of corporate security for Woodward & Lothrop and John Wanamaker's department stores, said he recalls a time, about 10 years ago, when some clothing retailers used two-way mirrors through which employees could surreptitiously watch customers. He said most stores backed away from that practice after a flurry of lawsuits alleging invasion of privacy.
"It's a very, very volatile situation, and Woodies and Wanamaker's made a decision a long time ago never to do that," Mr. Miller said from his office in Alexandria, Va. He added that Maryland's laws against watching customers in dressing rooms are among the nation's strictest. "I would think that if anyone was still doing anything like that 10 years ago, they've stopped."