Charity clothing collections are a lucrative fundraising activity, bringing in £550m a year in the UK. But bogus collections are on the increase and now cost genuine charities an estimated £3m a year, according to Clothes Aid, which collects for Great Ormond Street Hospital Children's Charity.
Veterinary charity PDSA saw a 50 per cent hike in the theft of donations from doorsteps in 2006. "We're disgusted by the rise," says Dawn Jones, a PDSA shop manager from Stafford.
Pressure is growing for a new strategy to tackle the problem. Campaigners want effective enforcement powers and more prosecutions, but all they are likely to achieve is a public awareness campaign led by six of the authorities affected (Third Sector, 22 August).
The problem is twofold. In some cases, donations intended for charities are stolen from doorsteps by organised networks. In others, gangs distribute carefully worded leaflets to households, asking for donations for good causes, but stopping short of claiming to be charities. Garments are sold intact abroad or to the overseas rag trade.
"We need a national task force with the resources or remit to tackle these organised crime gangs," says Michael Lomotey, head of collection protection at Clothes Aid. "Charities are being failed."
David Moir, head of policy and public affairs at the Association of Charity Shops, is calling for a clampdown. "Ideally, the authorities should treat these as serious crimes of theft and deception," he says.
Part of the problem is that the public does not know whom to report incidents to. Police and trading standards departments lack time and resources to investigate, and regulators lack the necessary powers. Criminal gangs often operate across police boundaries, which exacerbates the problem.
The Association of Chief Police Officers says that perpetrators are difficult to prosecute unless they are caught red-handed, because an arrest is impossible without a statement from whoever left the donations, and it is difficult to identify the original owners. It has circulated a letter from the Office of the Third Sector to all chief constables explaining how bogus collectors operate. "It is now down to local forces to implement any action plans should they see fit," says an Acpo spokesman.
Collectors who clearly commit fraud by using false charity registration numbers on leaflets can be prosecuted under the new Fraud Act, which came into force on 15 January this year. The Trading Standards Institute has the power to arrest and officers on the beat have succeeded in arresting people caught in the act, but it lacks the resources to carry out this level of policing constantly. "It is hard to make contact with whoever is running the network this way," says Sarah Smith, a spokeswoman for the institute.
The Charity Commission cannot act because bogus collection companies are not charities, and most stop short of claiming to be so.
In February 2003, the Advertising Standards Authority found against a commercial firm, Olonex, for describing itself as a charity, but in practice it can step in only if operators use paid-for adverts rather than door drops.
Clothes Aid's Lomotey blames Companies House for holding poor contact information for bogus collection firms and for not striking off rogue traders.
But Neil While, a spokesman for Companies House, says it holds the same details for rogue collectors as it does for legitimate outfits, and adds that it is not required to carry out pre-emptive investigations.
Lomotey also criticises HM Revenue & Customs. "Why is HMRC allowing the exchequer to be defrauded on tax for £3m?" he says.
With the complications involved in apprehending bogus collectors and coordinating between regulators, many believe education is the best way to tackle the issue.
Aware of scams
The ASA runs an education programme with local trading standards offices and supports a scams awareness drive with the Office of the Third Sector every February. At a meeting in June, the Charity Commission, the Office of Fair Trading, Acpo, the Trading Standards Institute, the Association of Charity Shops and the ASA agreed to run a joint campaign. An awareness campaign is likely to be in place soon.
But the proposal is not the clampdown that campaigners wanted, and some fear that it could even damage genuine charitable collections. "An awareness campaign might have the advantage of cutting off supplies to con men, but it will work only if people are not turned off from donating to legitimate causes," says Moir.