Thirty girls aged 14-17 were found to have been exploited in the UK's first modern slavery fraud case, which was brought to court in February 2022 when four members of an organised crime gang from the South East were convicted.
Retail staff and children’s services had raised concerns. The gang had recruited, trained and trafficked these teenagers to locations across the country where they committed refund fraud in high street stores by using fake receipts. But first, the girls were taught to place fake barcodes on items to pay a cheaper price for them, before later asking for a full price refund.
Many of the girls had mental health problems and most were subject to safeguarding concerns.
Vulnerable girls would be identified by gang members infiltrating their friendship groups before being tricked and coerced into carrying out crimes.
They were driven along pre-planned routes across the country and between 2018 and the first few months of 2020 were forced to commit a fraud every week.
The girls were often taken for several days, committing fraud during the day and housed in hotels each night, leading to some families reporting them as missing.
A typical day would include theft and fraud from more than 10 stores.
The girls were paid for their crimes, and often offered rewards such as overnight stays and takeaway meals but were abandoned miles from home if they were stopped by security staff.
The gang were using multiple UK bank accounts belonging to children or adults with mental health problems and other vulnerabilities. To avoid notice even the mobile phones and vehicles used were registered at addresses of adults known to have mental health problems of learning difficulties.