A 'tsunami' of shoplifting crime is blighting the high street in Cambridge, businesses have claimed.
Small stores, large chains and even charity shops are victims of theft on a daily basis.
It is a crime that goes widely under-reported as staff lack confidence in the city's stretched police force to tackle the issue.
The worsening issue is affecting morale and profit margins – with claims it has put the futures of some businesses under threat.
Cambridgeshire Live investigated the scale of the problem in the city centre.
A situation 'out of control'?
"I would say you're looking at not even 20 per cent of shop theft gets reported to the police," claims Adam Ratcliffe, manager of Cambridge Business Against Crime.
The 150-member organisation works with the police and other parties to take a proactive approach to crime in the city.
This includes a running a secure information sharing network, an inter-shop radio system, and training staff.
Adam, a former police officer, is frustrated by what he sees as a problem that is "out of control".
"It's worse than it's been for a while," he explained. "The police don't have the resources to deal with low level crimes.
"Which has now lead to low reporting. Businesses don't have the time and resources to wait with detained people.
"This is not a dig at Cambridgeshire police. They police work tireless in the city."
Adam recently took to Twitter to highlight how great the problem of shoplifting was.
"Meeting today with a city shop that has at least five shop thefts PER DAY," he wrote.
"Stopped reporting to the police due to 'lack of response'. Even at an average, that is over 1,800 crimes in one store alone. Businesses are more vulnerable than ever."
This is not an outlier. Adam has plenty of alarming stories of the challenges faced by shop managers and owners.
He said: "One business said that he has people who will talk in take stuff of the shelves right next to him and walk out the door and when he challenges them they say what you going to do?"
"It's the same as being mugged down the street but people don't see it that way. They think 'oh it doesn't belong to anyone'.
"It's forcing businesses to close."
Shoplifting statistics in Cambridge
According to Cambridgeshire police, there were 1,040 shoplifting crimes recorded by officers between April 2016 and March 2017 in the whole of Cambridge city.
This rose to 1,263 record crimes between April 2017 and April 2018.
At the end of 2017, it was reported that shoplifting was costing the country's economy more than £6 billion a year, with the number of reported offences rising from just over 300,000 in 2012-13 to almost 370,000 in 2016-17
"Nationally the statistics suggest that shop theft isn't as bad as we say it is because we're not reporting it," said Adam Ratcliffe.
"We're seeing high value theft, we're seeing habitual theft, and it's on a relentless level. Whether it's to fund a debt or to fund a lifestyle."
Neil Mackay, who runs Mackays hardware store in East Road, is a longstanding campaigner against shoplifting, and objects to the use of that term.
"I see no good reason to differentiate the crime by calling it anything other then theft," he said.
"The very word shoplifting has been so devalued in the public's consciousness as to almost not be regarded as a crime."
Adam agreed: "We believe that shoplifting has lost all meaning, It's devaluing the crime."
The cost to businesses
Campaigning against the issue has taken Neil all the way to the House of Commons to discuss how to tackle it.
He said: "When I was on my way there as I walked from King's Cross I spoke to several managers in shops in London and to a man and woman they said there's not even any point in reporting it anymore.
"The statistics that are out are hugely under reported. I know it's the same in Cambridge."
Neil explained that preventing and responding to shoplifting comes at a cost to businesses – tagging items, installing CCTV, trawling through videos and reporting incidents to the police.
"In my opinion any level of shop theft is unacceptable," he said.
"At average retail margins it has been calculated that it takes 12 more sales of the item which was stolen, simply to get back to where the shop stood before the crime.
"That doesn't take into account the need to generate profits to pay staff, pay rates and all the other costs of running a retail environment."
Adam echoed that sentiment: "We're being told by businesses that they are finding it harder to afford to stay in Cambridge.
"If you imagine the level of stock loss on top of business rates and rent. They are struggling because they can't cope with the issue of stuff being stolen."
Neil has been so infuriated by the shoplifting strikes on his store that he has created a 'rogues gallery' of suspects caught on CCTV.
"Retailers have generally have lost faith that anything is going to be done about it," he said.
"We've got a tsunami of crime that's not being reported and not being recognised."
Small businesses targeted
Neil's business is not alone in being targeted by thieves. Independent shops across the city are being hit by shoplifting.
Bill Ginn, manager at Black Barn Records on Burleigh Street said: "It's not happened massively regularly, we find empty sleeves pretty regularly.
The shop has suffered three or four large thefts since it opened of over £200, often involving people grabbing a handful of records worth between £15 or £20 each.
"Every time we've seen someone do it they've been caught every time. The police know who they are," said Bill.
He explained that the full toll of shoplifting was difficult to ascertain, but staff find empty sleeves every other day.
"It's always expensive sleeves," he said. Someone obviously swaps an expensive record into a cheaper sleeve. We got a guy on video swapping sleeves."
Bill said the incentives for shops to report crimes weren't there. One shoplifter they caught was only handed a small fine, while insurance pay-outs rarely cover the value of the lost stock.
He added: "The thing that's frustrating is were not selling bread and milk, not one's going to starve. You don't need to nick a record to survive."
How the law approaches shoplifting
In 2014, the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 changed the law in England and Wales around shoplifting.
It introduced a £200 threshold, under which anyone caught stealing goods less than that value could plead guilty by post or appear in magistrates' court.
The penalty would then be a fine or up to six months in prison.
The law has been blamed by businesses for a surge in shoplifting because police will not investigate the theft of items worth less than £200.
Continuous petty theft
One worker at a supermarket in Cambridge city centre, who did not want to be named, said he constantly experiences shoplifting doing his job.
"At city centre shops it's terrible," he explained. "I put it down to being the level of homeless in Cambridge. They don't have the money, they've got to get something to eat.
"It's continuous petty theft. None of it's people robbing your tills. [It's] In the 10s every day. That's not saying they all get out.
"You can't grab people or chase them down the road but a lot of the time they get deterred by watching someone.
"The other week we had a guy come in take £40 worth of meat. We caught him at the door."
On another occasion someone swiped an entire shelf of baby milk worth £180.
The worker said all incidents get reported internally by his employer but police would not always respond to incidents.
"The reality is most of them are too small to waste police time. They are strained enough in the city."
"Shoplifting doesn't seem to be the priority at all. It's worse than anywhere else I've been."
Lack of police resource
Adam Ratcliffe said this lack of resource in the police was affecting how businesses responded to shoplifting, with some feeling more "vulnerable".
In February Cambridgeshire Live reported that, Cambridgeshire Constabulary has seen a 3.6 per cent reduction in neighbourhood police officers – from 528 in 2013 to 509 in 2017, a loss of 19.
Total officer numbers in Cambridgeshire were down by 38 since 2013 when the force had 1,383 officers. In February it was reported it had 1,345.
The force was gearing up to hire more than 50 new recruits, bringing the number of officers above the 2013 figure.
However, the 126 PCSOs the force employed was to be reduced by natural turnover with a commitment to retain a minimum of 80 posts.
Adam said: "Even security guards have to adapt the way they deal with people because they don't feel they have the support available to them if they call the police."
"People can be quite aggressive. When people are going in with items to cut tags off clothes, that's an intimidating factor.
"Security guards are very aware that they are the last ling of defence."
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Carlos Da Silva, a security officer at Primark on Burleigh Street, said the store has one or two theft attempts a day which are all routinely reported to the police.
"Normally it's not that bad," he said. "From one to 10, you can put it at four or five. Saturday is the worst day, between three and five.
"If we catch someone, one of us stands outside, we invite the person to come inside we go into our room and we call the police.
"Some times the police come, some times they are too busy to come. Some times you feel a bit disappointed. Then you have different choices how to act with the shoplifter.
"Some times we don't have any choice just to recover the stuff and let them go."
Even charity shops are falling victim
But in stores without the protection of a security guard, staying on top of shoplifting is a great challenge.
One worker at a charity shop on Burleigh Street, who didn't want to be named, said she had a bag of stock taken just half an hour before being interviewed by Cambridgeshire Live.
"Obviously being a charity shop you generally don't have that many staff," she explained. "Paid staff tend to be on their own with a lot of work to do.
"You're constantly up and down trying to keep tabs on people. "You don't always know it's happening.
"Certain things you notice are not there anymore. Some times you do have incidents where you see them do it or you see someone come in and you have an inkling."
She estimated that the store experienced shoplifting on a daily basis, but it was hard to be sure without a proper stock count system.
"It's especially bad on this side of town I think," she added.
"It does get morale down. You work hard to do something good for a good cause and people are coming and taking the good stuff. Why? Because it's easier.
"When comes to clothes, personally I'm not that bothered. If people are homeless, low on funds, in one way you're helping.
"But people coming and nicking DVDs and stuff – that's not going to help anybody."
Reporting crimes needs to improve
Adam Ratcliffe said that there needed to be a national change on how low level crime was dealt with, to lift pressure on businesses.
This included streamlining the reporting process and encouraging people to record incidents.
"Anecdotally, we're looking at bigger businesses being hit with double figures a day," he said.
"I think we are looking at a staggering statistic, if not higher, of one in 15 that is actually reported.
"My message is that shop theft and business related crime is being overlooked because if can be overlooked and until members of the public and the businesses themselves actually report anything that happens the true scope of the problem won't be seen."
A spokesman for Cambridgeshire police said: "We have a new reporting process for businesses which allows retailers to send relevant CCTV footage directly to us and allows us to prioritise those investigations which stand the best opportunity for successful investigative outcomes whilst filtering out those offences for which no reasonable lines of investigation exist."
Crimes can be reported to the force online through its website: www.cambs.police.uk/report/Report.