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DEAR ABBY: Some time ago I saw a letter in your column from a mother who discovered that her daughter had shoplifted a garment while they were out shopping together. The mother immediately returned the garment to the store.

Here in Illinois, anyone who is found to be in possession of merchandise without proof of sale (a sales slip) can be prosecuted for stealing! I learned this the hard way: I bought a pair of slacks at a major department store. They did not fit properly, so I put them into a bag and took them back to the store. (I neglected to place the sales slip in the bag.) I gave the bag to a salesperson in that department while I went into the dressing room to try on some other slacks that were displayed on a rack.When I emerged from the dressing room, I was arrested - for shoplifting! The salesperson had looked into the bag, saw the slacks but no sales slip, and assumed that I had shoplifted them.

I was sentenced to a "theft deterrent" program. With me in the class was a young woman in her 30s who owned her own printing business, a matronly grandmother and a firefighter. The young woman had tried on a jacket, then walked to the shoe department at the other end of the store to find some matching shoes. She was arrested in the shoe department for "attempting to leave the store" without paying for the jacket!

The grandmother had been grocery shopping. "Security" followed her home (she lived a block from the store) and arrested her for stealing the shopping cart. (She had carted her groceries home in this manner many times and had always returned the shopping carts, as she had intended to return this one.)

The firefighter had gone into a hardware store to return a defective tire gauge. He placed the defective gauge on a shelf and helped himself to a new one because he did not want to stand in a long line at the register. He was arrested for stealing as he was leaving the store.

Abby, I am not a thief, and neither were the others who were arrested for stealing. Our only crime was ignorance of the law.

Another valuable bit of information: Most stores have hidden cameras, one-way mirrors and well-trained undercover security personnel who receive bonuses for turning in shoppers (and salespeople) who steal.

I hope a word to the wise is sufficient. - BUSTED IN ILLINOIS

DEAR BUSTED: So do I. Thanks for an enlightening letter. However, because laws vary from state to state, everyone should be aware of the laws in his or her state.

CONFIDENTIAL TO DISAPPOINTED IN NEW HAVEN: If you pull a few wires while your children are growing up, you may not have to pull any strings to get them into a top-notch college. (Suggested wires to pull: television, stereo and telephone.)