Below is a message forwarded by Launceston Chamber of Commerce warning about a scam to trick shops out of money. The scam has also been operated in other Cornish and Devon towns, so all shops should be alerted:
There was a big problem in Launceston last week which may be heading your way, and as many people as possible need to be aware of.
A woman has been visiting shops, taking things from shelves unseen, then taking them to the counter and saying she purchased the item(s) some days ago and they are damaged.
Before taking the items to the counter she is damaging the items herself, usually by cutting them with scissors, or simply breaking them in her hand.
Of course she has no receipts, but targets shops which are national chains (and may therefore offer refunds without receipts) or small independents where she tries to intimidate shop staff. If a refund is not offered quickly, she says she is in a hurry with children waiting in the car, in order to try and rush and confuse shop staff.
We know of 11 shops in Lanson where she managed to obtain a refund for her stolen/damaged goods. We know of another 3 who have found damaged (cut with scissors) good on their shelves â€“ obviously from where the woman did not go through with the scam for whatever reason. I suspect more will come to light in the coming days.
She has targeted a range of shops, from pet shops to chemists, newsagents, hardware shops and gift shops, and seems to select goods with a value of Â£20 or more. Everything from reading glasses, books, pet toys & collars, scarves, gloves and hardware items.
Of course we have been in contact with the police, who initially refused to go round the shops to see who had been victims of this scam.
Thankfully one of our members went round all shops in town and alerted them to the issue. Because of the nature of the scam, many were unaware they had been conned, seeing it as just an individual instance of a customer refund for damaged goods.
Only when we all started to talk together about it have all the instances come to light. It seems the woman made good money in Launceston over the course of last week, taking hundreds of pounds from businesses who not only lost the cash they refunded for a sale that was never made, but are also left with damaged goods which they cannot sell.
If there is any way you can make your members aware of this scam then maybe people will be more on their guard than we were in Launceston, and maybe the woman can be caught if someone recognises the scam and calls the police while she is still in town.
The police are currently trying to find a CCTV picture, but it seems she has been dodging them well, despite being in town for several days over the weekend.
I think the main town system will take some trawling through as it is unmanned during the day, Boots CCTV was out of order and the one other shop she went to which had CCTV didnâ€™t have a camera covering the downstairs sales area.
The best description we have is that she is between 35 and 45 with shoulder length dark hair, some have said slightly wavy, some have said it was straight. On Saturday she was wearing a fake fur coat (how people can spot her coat was a fake yet not know what her hair was like I donâ€™t know) and presented herself as quite â€˜well to doâ€™, saying she lived in Falmouth and worked in M&S.
On Monday people say she was less well dressed and was wearing a white top and had a bad cold sore on the corner of her mouth, but of course that may have healed by now.The key to her identification is her method. If a refund is not quickly offered or people insist on receipts, she starts to get agitated and gives all sorts of reasons why she canâ€™t return with the receipts. Her husband purchased the items, or she has driven a long way. She also targets items of which there is only one left on the shelf (or takes the remainder if there are a few).
While this is clever, as it means the shop staff cannot offer a straight replacement for the damaged item she is â€˜returningâ€™, it could also bring about her downfall. In small shops staff tend to know what stock they hold, and if they have just one or two units of a high value item they are likely to know if they have sold the last one(s). That is what bought this to light, she took an item to the counter in a pet shop and the girl knew they had only had one in stock; she had not sold it and had been working in the shop on the day the woman claims it was purchased. She raised the alarm with me and then went round to other shops and the scale of the scam became apparent.
The stories are still coming out from various shops as we find more who had been conned without even realising it. Today I have just learned that it is thought a woman was doing the same thing in Paignton 2 weeks ago. Most likely the same person, and more likely that she is touring local towns and only staying as long in each as she thinks she can get away with.