Page last updated at 07:09 GMT, Monday, 11 January 2010

Criminals 'winning the shoplifting war'

By Samantha Poling
BBC Scotland Investigations

Samantha Poling and the stolen dress bought from Blochairn market
Samantha Poling, pictured with the stolen dress she bought from a trader in Blochairn market

I have investigated organised crime and those at the centre of it for years.

I have secretly filmed heroin traffickers and fraudsters and exposed gunmen and conmen - those who sit comfortably at the higher echelons of the criminally rich.

Two things have always struck me about these people.

The first is how they are able to make the amount of money they do. And the second, is why they choose to continue their life of criminality once they've made that money.

So when I set out to investigate the world of shoplifting, I was more than a little surprised by what I found.

Where it was once a petty crime committed by the desperate, shoplifting is now a multi-billion pound industry run by the gangland elite.

Maxine Fraser
Over 50% of the offenders in our system are organised teams or organised individuals who do this for a living
Maxine Fraser
Retailers Against Crime

More than half of all shoplifting offences are now carried out by criminal gangs who operate professional and organised shoplifting teams.

Even though many of these gangs are already worth millions through other crimes, stealing remains part of their resume and a risk they're willing to take.

Retail crime is at its highest level for a decade and enforcement agencies and retail investigators alike blame the gangs for this rise.

Maxine Fraser, of Retailers Against Crime, told me: "When I started here many years ago it was perceived that most stock which was removed from stores was removed by those who had a substance abuse problem, whether it be drugs or alcohol.

"Now that's certainly not the case. Over 50% of the offenders in our system are organised teams or organised individuals who do this for a living."

In fact, we discovered that enforcement agencies across the country have files on 10 major organised shoplifting gangs currently operating in Britain. All their details are held on an intelligence database and each recorded under a team name.

McGovern gang

The Drylaw Gang operates out of Edinburgh. The Salisbury Team works out of Leeds and there's the Brown Team from Newcastle. Each with its own specialism.

Yet of all the criminal gangs operating across the UK, there's one in particular which is feared most by the retailers. It's the biggest, it's the richest and, as Maxine Fraser told me, it's right on our doorstep.

She said: "This Glasgow gang has approximately 150 offenders on the system who relate to that team.

"At the moment, 30 of them are the most active and have been highlighted to our stores.

"They can take between two and three thousand pounds of stock in a couple of minutes, so work out what they can take in a day, and work out what they can take in a week.

"You could say easily £100,000 a day. In a year that could run to millions."

She is talking about the McGovern gang.

Graeme Pearson
Graeme Pearson says people do not take shoplifting seriously enough

It's run by two women who are linked with one of the biggest and most notorious crime families in Scotland.

Based in Glasgow, the McGoverns call themselves the Underworld's McGovernment and the family is now believed to be worth about £14m.

She showed me footage of the team in action. It's never been shown on television before.

It is so well organised, so carefully orchestrated, it is like watching a carefully choreographed ballet.

A gang member walks into a shop with a giant box. He starts to browse.

Another team member strolls in and chooses the stock to be stolen.

A third person follows behind, gathers the chosen goods and places them all onto one rack.

'Career criminals'

A final member of the gang distracts the shop assistant, leading her to the other side of the shop.

The box man moves in, opens the lid of the box, and the rack of stolen goods is dropped inside.

It takes less than four minutes and earns the gang a haul worth thousands.

Graeme Pearson was the Director General of the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency until 2007. He believes the rise in shoplifting gangs is partly down to perception.

He told me: "People don't get excited about shoplifting. In terms of setting priorities, in fairness to those involved in the authorities, there is no bleeding victim.

"There is no clamour from the public saying 'Something must be done'.

"I think we need to be able to designate people as career criminals, and the system deal with them as career criminals."

Ray Howie
Ray Howie works in retail security in Carlisle

We also managed to get a breakdown on the places across the UK which have had a visit from the gang.

One English city which has had more than its fair share of visits from the McGovern team is Carlisle.

Retail investigator Ray Howie told me how the gang had changed how it operated as it became increasingly proficient.

"When they first came to Carlisle, they used to park the vehicle on the outskirts of the town and sneak in that way," he said.

"The last time they came here they didn't park the car. There was a driver and he just kept circling around the town, they'd make the telephone call when they'd committed the crime. They'd just get in the car and away they go."

It was obvious that the blame for the rise in shoplifting couldn't just lie at the feet of those who stole.

No questions asked

All the stolen goods would be worthless to these organised shoplifting gangs if they didn't have somewhere to sell them.

I went undercover to Blochairn, Scotland's biggest open-air market which I was told was a popular place for shoplifters to offload their goods - no questions asked.

Maxine Fraser had already warned me of the tell-tale signs of suspicious goods - several identical items of different sizes, clearly visible price tags, and a greatly reduced price.

She then told me that many people buy the goods only to take them back to the original shops where they were stolen from to get a refund.

It wasn't long before I found a stall which sold clothing from high-end stores such as Next, Gap and Monsoon.

The clothes were all still on the hangers, complete with shop labels and price tags - exactly as Maxine had described.

'A gift'

I chose a red dress which, according to the label, was £29. It was mine, said the stallholder, for £4.

I asked if I could take it back to the shop if it didn't fit. The stall holder told me: "Take it back, say it was a gift. This was taken six weeks ago. My pal is a shoplifter. It's what they all do. Take it back and get the money."

Only six months ago, Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill publicly acknowledged the link between shoplifting and organised crime. And he went further, saying he would support any sheriff who took extremely serious actions against such people.

Yet in that same month, the two leaders of the McGovern shoplifting gang were fined just £750 for stealing designer goods.

I asked Maxine Fraser whom she thought was winning the war. Was it the retailer or the criminal?

"The criminal is at the moment, definitely."

If you have any information about organised shoplifting gangs or would like to contact the Investigations team with another story, e-mail

Millionaire Thieves will be broadcast on BBC One Scotland at 1930 GMT on Monday 11 January.

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