Woman says theft accusation "stripped me of my dignity"

By Talisa Kupenga

A woman is speaking out against institutional racism and racial profiling after being wrongfully accused of stealing a blonde wig from a women’s clothing store in Auckland.

Earlier this month Mandi Lobo went to buy a jacket from St Lukes Mall and tried on items in Portmans before moving to another store where she was stopped, held, and had her bags searched by security.

Mandi Lobo says “I was told by security I'd been caught shoplifting on camera, putting a wig in my bag as I was leaving the Portmans store.

“What made it worse is that security searched the Glassons store I’d just come from because they thought I’d stashed the wig somewhere inside.”

A Portmans employee called security after seeing what they believed to be "a Māori woman with bleach blonde hair and low pigtails snatching the wig off a mannequin in-store”.

Security believed Lobo matched the description, but after being held for 15 minutes, another Portmans employee confirmed it was a case of "mistaken identity".

Lobo is now calling for retail policies to change when it comes to accusations of theft.

"It stripped me of my dignity pretty much I felt highly embarrassed," she says.

Lobo is aboriginal and believes she was racially stereotyped as a thief because she looked Māori. After the ordeal she contacted the mall for an apology as she was publicly humiliated by the ordeal.

"What's not appropriate is they held me against my will. They had no factual evidence I stole a wig. Secondly the racial profiling and thirdly there is still no one putting their hand up and taking accountability."

Scentre Group Westfield St Lukes met with Mandi and expressed its regret and apologised for the events that day but disputed she was racially profiled. Centre Experience Manager Kerrie Hughes told Te Kāea:

"Standard procedure is the retailer is required to identify the individual...in this case [identification] was incorrect and a case of mistaken identity.

"After an incident that takes place in our centres we undertake a review of processes and we have engaged with our contractor to discuss training and this was shared with Mandi.

"...whilst this was a regretful experience we do value Mandi as a customer."

But Lobo says after meeting with centre management the issue was still not resolved because she had not heard from Portmans.

"They still hadn’t derived a statement from Portmans and a week and a half later I sent an email asking 'what's going on?' They thought the matter was closed but it hadn't been closed until Portmans sent a statement saying I didn't steal the wig."

Portmans has since apologised too and offered to meet in person. The store manager has also offered a meeting. Portmans group General Manager Susan O'Connor told Te Kāea;

"There has clearly been a disconnect between the incident that took place outside Glassons, the Centre Security detaining Amanda and the events that have been outlined to me by our team. The Portmans team did not identify Amanda.

"At no stage would our company ever wish to put any customer in this situation - it goes against everything in our Code of Conduct & Equal Opportunity Policy, which value treating customers and staff with dignity and respect. We do not tolerate discrimination in any form."

But Lobo says no one has taken responsibility for wrongfully identifying her in the first place.

"I'm not too sure who identified me because Portmans is saying security identified me but Portmans is saying security identified me.”

Lobo has since made light of the situation but says she has no immediate plans to shop at either premises again.