Charity doorstep clothes collections are increasingly being targeted by bogus collectors, Which? can reveal.
The collections are a vital source of income for charities but millions of pounds are being creamed off each year.
Gangs in unmarked vans are stealing bags from doorsteps before the real collectors arrive.
Clothes Aid, the collection agent for Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH), London, says these gangs use leaflets so they can shadow legitimate collection teams.
In the past the leaflets used false charity numbers but now they’ve become more sophisticated, stating they’re commercial collection companies.
The bogus collectors are then selling their clothes to the same agents in Europe as Clothes Aid but making a bigger profit.
Wholesalers in Lithuania report that these collectors bring over 20 lorry loads more a week than the legitimate agents.
In the last 18 months Clothes Aid has seen the theft problem get far worse.
But the Association of Charity Shops (ACS), which includes charities that make house to- house collections, told us that when its members have reported bogus collectors to the police, little action has been taken.
And despite 80 arrests – mainly of Lithuanian nationals – there’s been only one prosecution.
If a collector is masquerading as a UK charity, the Charity Commission and trading standards officers can take action.
But the commission says it’s powerless if there’s no mention of a charitable cause or if the charity is actually based abroad.
And the Office of Fair Trading admitted to us that trading standards officers have had ‘limited success’ stopping this activity where leaflets have stated they’re from commercial collecting companies.
The police have also found it hard to prosecute. Under the Theft Act a victim is needed, but often it’s not possible to find out which house a bag has come from, and technically the bag doesn’t belong to the charity until it’s in the collection van.
Government representatives recently met charities and enforcement agencies to discuss the problem. The government believes that raising awareness is vital, and the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) has written to chief constables about the issue.
The ACS’s code of practice requires collection organisations to clearly print charity details on its collection bags.
David Moir, of ACS, says: ‘We’re doing all we can, but it’s up to the police and other agencies to stop this because it’s despicable.’