Clothes donated by members of the public to charity are being stolen by organised criminals and sold abroad, depriving leading charities of millions of pounds for good causes.
Gangs from Eastern Europe are believed to be responsible for a growing number of raids on doorstep collection bags and clothing banks, attracted by a trebling in the price for old clothing in the past three years.
The lucrative thefts – a single clothes bank can contain a haul of £150 to £200 – come as the country's 6,800 charity shops struggle to cope with a drop in donations during the economic slump as people move house less often and keep old clothing for longer.
According to Britain's biggest charity shop operator Oxfam, police have shown little interest in investigating the crimes because of a perception that donated clothing is worthless and because of a lack of firm evidence.
Oxfam and the British Heart Foundation, which is "seriously concerned" by the thefts, will meet Nick Hurd, the Civil Society minister, and Detective Chief Superintendent Steve Head, the head of the City of London's economic crime unit, to discuss the problem at the Cabinet Office next week.
As a result of the price of used clothing rising from £200 to £600, the public's donation of 480,000 tonnes of clothing to charity annually is worth £280m. But when volunteers try to empty metal clothing banks in car parks, they often find they have been emptied. Thieves are also stealing toys, clothing and books left out by householders in sacks, and are making bogus doorstep appeals, sometimes using a real charity's name, logo and registration number.
"There has been a huge growth in the commercial rag trade. What was once a market that didn't have much resale value now suddenly has a very serious commercial value," said Oxfam's trading director David McCullough, who looks after the charity's 704 shops. We are seeing a huge amount of legitimate and illegitimate companies collecting house to house, setting up clothing banks, collecting on behalf of charities. We are also seeing a very substantial increase in thefts by what appear to be well-organised criminal gangs."
He explained: "They are emptying textile banks in supermarket car parks in the middle of the night, so when volunteers go to empty these banks they are empty already. The less sophisticated fish the clothes out of the banks from the hatches. Some of them send kids into the hatches to throw the stuff back out. Others take bolt cutters and take the padlocks off and lift the banks onto lorries, unload them somewhere else and take off the sides with thermal torches.
"Evidence suggests it's being taken into the commercial market abroad, principally in Eastern Europe. Some of the people who have been stopped and cautioned are predominantly Eastern European."
The charity has fitted electronic sensors to some of its 700 clothing banks to identify when they are ready for collection and when a theft has occurred.
The British Heart Foundation said bogus doorstep collections will cost it £3m this year and double that in 2012. Mike Lucas, its retail director, estimated it had experienced at least 30 thefts from clothing banks and 200 thefts of doorstep collections per year. "I am concerned. We need that stock and the money should be going to the British Heart Foundation. We have had to run more campaigns for stock," he said.
Although profits at many of Britain's 6,800 charity charity shops have risen in the past two years, they could have made even more given more stock, which has fallen by around 10 per cent.