Angry and tearful after another day of tirelessly complaining about the holes in her school pants, 13-year-old Farrah McNutt took matters into her own hands.
After entering a local store in Haverhill, Suffolk, she slipped into the changing room, tried on a new pair of trousers and brazenly walked out the door without being spoken to by staff.
The audacious theft was the start of an ever-increasing shoplifting addiction that saw the troubled teenager hold up shops on a daily basis and even steal to order for a gang of so-called friends up to six years her senior.
But Farrah – one of 11 children – has now turned her life around and is using her previous experiences to advise stores on tackling the growing number of shoplifters through her company Catch A Thief.
“The first time I shoplifted it was for the bare minimum, but when there are no consequences you move on,” she says.
“People told me that no one gets hurt here, there are no victims and because I was young I wouldn’t get in trouble for it, which is obviously not true,” she tells the Sun.
“It is not a victimless crime because store owners lose the money they need when they put food on the table, they may have to lay off employees or even close, which has a huge impact on the community.”
Retailers have reported a huge increase in shoplifting in recent years. In the year to June, 365,164 crimes were recorded by police in England and Wales – an increase of 25 per cent compared to the previous 12 months. The co-op estimates the theft cost it £33 million last year.
Farrah, who appears in a series of Channel 5 shows on shoplifting tonight, is helping shopkeepers combat the problem by teaching them the tell-tale signs of offenders, effective deterrents and making police reports.
“We work with over 30 stores and each member has seen a significant decrease in thefts,” she says. “It’s really important that we show both retailers and perpetrators that something is being done.”
Steal to order
Farrah grew up in a poor household with ten siblings and often went without because her mother couldn’t afford to give her the things her classmates had.
“I was teased because my school pants had holes in them, so I went to a store and changed them,” she says.
“Once I got away with it, I carried on, stealing makeup and clothes, just keeping up with the trends at school and trying not to get bullied.
“Everyone at school had nice clothes and makeup and I wanted the same.”
At first, Farrah stuck to one item or another, but the shoplifting became more frequent.
“After getting away with it for so long, I was in the shops every lunch break at school,” she says.
“I used to hang around with these 19 and 20-year-olds and they would make me go into the shops and get them things, including alcohol.
“Most of them had babies and had problems with baby clothes, so they asked me to steal them.
“A girl wanted something for her child’s first birthday and asked me to build an inflatable ball pit with a bouncy castle. I went to the checkout and asked for the largest bag they had and they gave it to me. So I went to the shelf, put it in the bag and just walked out.
“It was way too easy. There was no video surveillance, but no one cared about the video surveillance because nothing was done with it anyway.
“I never got paid for it, I just did it because they told me to. They used me. They always said that because I was underage I would get in less trouble than them, but you can still go to jail for it or be referred to probation or juvenile delinquency and if you keep it up it will really impact your life.
“Once you go down that path, you get the record and the final warnings and you start to feel like you have nothing to lose because you’ve already ruined your life with a criminal record.”
At 15, Farrah became pregnant with her now 13-year-old son Bradley, and after being arrested and sentenced to probation, she vowed to turn her life around.
“I realized I didn’t want to go down that path,” she says. “I got into more and more trouble, but when I got pregnant with my son I didn’t want him to have that life.
“I wanted to be a good example for him and all my younger brothers and sisters who looked up to me. I didn’t want them to go through that life or get a criminal record, so I quit and went back to school to do GCSES.
“Then I looked at the statistics and found that 3.3 million thefts were unreported – and I wanted to know why.”
Farrah began talking to store owners and realized that stealing was far from a victimless crime.
“They told me the CCTV wouldn’t be used as evidence and said, ‘We can’t claim back our insurance because the more we claim, the higher our premiums go.’
“Shop owners and employees have mortgages or rent and need to feed their children and if the shop were to close it would have a devastating impact on the community, particularly the elderly.”
To address the problem, Farrah founded Catch A Thief in 2014 and distributed CCTV footage of shoplifters to make them easier to identify. He also assisted shopkeepers in filing police reports and ensured that cases were not closed without proper investigation during prosecution.
She also advises shop owners on how they can deter thieves with signage and which technologies can help trap perpetrators. She says there are four different types of shoplifters with different signs.
“There are the opportunists, the premeditated, the organized gangs and the needy,” she says.
“An organized gang is more likely to use diversionary tactics, so one might hire an employee while another raids the shelves.
“The premeditated shoplifter goes in and out as quickly as possible and puts as much as he can into a bag. They often feed an addiction, so they take, for example, five bottles of detergent or lots of meat that they can sell to feed their addiction.
“One thing to watch out for is if someone is walking down the aisle very quickly.
“They don’t look at the employees, they lower their heads and pick up a product without looking at it.
“The opportunist will appear more nervous and look around a bit more to see where the employees are.
“People who steal out of necessity will be the ones who take home a loaf of bread, milk and cookies and feed the family. They don’t go for expensive things like lots of meat.
“They often don’t realize how much help and support there is out there in the form of food banks, grants and low-budget loans.”
The retailer went out of its way to say, “Don’t take it off my shelves.” Come talk to me and I’ll give you something to eat. ‘
One time a customer in Sheffield had a regular customer who stole a sandwich and milkshake almost every day.
“When we identified him, we asked the retailer if you wouldn’t mind putting them in touch with the food bank and seeing if that helped,” Farrah says.
“The retailer went out of their way to say, ‘Don’t take it off my shelves.’ Come and talk to me and I’ll give you something to eat.’
“For each business, we print out a list of local assistance and support services and allow them to call shelters by phone. This man only stole because he was hungry and homeless, so he needed help.”
Advice for business
If employees spot a shoplifter, Farrah recommends not confronting them directly, but instead proceeding politely.
“Anyone who finds themselves in a desperate situation wants to escape and could use knives or strike,” she says.
“My advice is controversial because I always say be polite to them. If you see someone putting something in the bag, say, “Would you like me to take this to the checkout for you?” Most people will be embarrassed enough to return the items or pay for them.
“But always stay an arm’s distance away so they don’t become violent.”
She also advises employees to recognize customers as they enter the store so they know you’ve spotted them, and recommends using new AI technology that tells employees in real time if a shopper is behaving suspiciously.
In addition to the list of points of contact offering help that are printed out to hand to those driven to steal by cost of living crises or addiction, Farrah also uses prohibition notices handed out to offenders to bar them from entering stores.
“They tell the perpetrator that they were caught and if they come back to the store they could face trespassing charges or even burglary. They are really effective for the opportunists and those who think they will do it because no one is watching.”
Farrah, whose siblings are also involved in “Catch a Thief,” has now brought son Bradley on board.
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“Bradley is the age when I started shoplifting,” Farrah says. “But he now tells everyone that shoplifting is bad and has consequences. That’s something I’m very proud of, being 13 and having that attitude.”
Shoplifting: Stripping the Shelves is on Channel 5 from tonight at 10pm. Shoplifting: Caught in the act, twice a week on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7pm on Channel 5.