Child shoplifters work to order: Esther Oxford reports on stores plagued by teams of young thieves

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The Independent Online
THE FIVE boys at Wood Green shopping centre in north London were getting ready for their afternoon shift. Work for them means shoplifting. 'We do commissions,' one boy said. 'I can get you a pounds 60 computer game to order. But it'll cost you.'

One of the boys was seven years old. He had taken a day off school to work with his brother's 'team'.

'We choose a toy then tell him to take it to 'Mummy' outside. If he gets caught we go over and give him a bollocking for the benefit of the shop assistant. If he doesn't the toy is his,' his older brother explained.

Schoolchildren are responsible for most of the shoplifting at Wood Green shopping centre. Most operate in gangs. Their tactics are timeless: two or three distract the shopkeeper while the rest remove the goods.

'If one of us gets caught, we help each other out. A bit of wrestling and you're free,' one said. Most of the 'purchases' are sold in pubs or to customers who have lodged 'orders'.

Why did they do it? 'We need the money,' was the reply. They also liked the buzz, they admitted.

Shopkeepers say that 3.30 to 4.30pm is the worst hour of the day. 'The kids swarm in after school. We only allow them to come in twos, but if we are short staffed they just barge through. It can get quite frightening,' said Linda Sharpe, 45, manageress of Discount Cosmetics.

'I had one assistant pushed to the ground. The girl reached over, grabbed a dozen bottles of my most expensive perfume and ran out of the shop.'

Shoplifting costs Ms Sharpe an estimated pounds 10,000 a year. She does not bother claiming insurance. 'They give you such a hard time and they only put up my costs. It is just not worth it.

'I would not consider scrapping the business. But I do feel powerless. It happens so quickly and the girls are so clever. Even when I do catch them there is nothing I can do. I just say, 'I think you have forgotten to pay'. They usually pay up.'

The shopping city is patrolled by security guards but their powers are limited. Usually the child is told off and ordered to leave the premises. 'It is not worth calling the police - there is little they can do,' one guard said.

'I've worked in this area for 20 years so I know most of the parents. I say to these lads, 'If you do that again you'll have me knocking on your door'.'

That may have worked 20 years ago, but this generation is more astute. 'I got caught nicking a jumper for school,' one boy with a flattened mohican said.

'When they threatened to call my parents I burst into tears and told them my mum was a single parent. The store detective went all soft on me and said, 'I understand son. I was brought up by my mother too'. He let me off. He didn't realise I had pounds 30 in my pocket.'