Chewing gum 'stolen as Romanian currency'
Hundreds of pounds worth of chewing gum is being stolen from British stores to use as currency in Romania.
Chewing gum and other small packets of sweets are commonly offered instead of small change by shopkeepers according to a police officer who has investigated the thefts.
PC David Walton, of West Mercia Police, said it was a growing problem for supermarkets across the Midlands and North Yorkshire.
On 16 January two Romanian nationals were jailed for stealing £800 worth of chewing gum from stores in Worcester the previous day.
Worcester magistrates ordered Constantin Barbu, 31, and Bogan-Constantin Panait, 23, both from Hounslow in London, to spend seven days in prison after they pleaded guilty to stealing chewing gum from supermarkets.
'I was astounded'
PC Walton said it was a "widespread problem" with the first case he became aware of happening in April 2011.
He said: "The values we are talking about are £340, £700, £420, £318.
"What they do in effect is they go down the aisles and empty the whole box into their trolley.
"They always have a vehicle outside, they never use public transport and they target stores on retail parks because there is less chance of getting blocked in by traffic, like in the town centres."
He said Sainsburys and Asda stores had particularly been targeted in Shropshire along with a Morrison's store. He said he saw no reason why Tesco would be exempt although the chain had not reported any thefts.
"When we started looking into it the same addresses came up time and time again. They seem to come over for a few weeks and stay with people in London then drive back to Romania with the goods," he said.
Thefts have been reported as far afield as Lincolnshire, Wimbledon, Cambridge and Wiltshire.
Sarah Cordey, spokeswoman for the British Retail Consortium, said the thefts fitted with recent trends they had identified of shoplifting being carried out by "organised criminal gangs".
She said: "It does play into recent trends we've raised that supermarkets are being targeted by more organised criminals often working together.
"It shows retailers are doing a good job at targeting opportunistic thieves stealing the odd item for their own use but there is a hard core left which is often a more serious criminal element.
"Sadly (chewing gum theft) fits into this trend and what's of concern to us is they are more likely to be violent if confronted by staff and are more likely to be responsible for sizable losses because they tend to pre-plan."
Richard Goodchild, who runs the Safer Shrewsbury Pub and Shop Watch Partnership, said at first he thought the problem was just contained to Shropshire.
He said: "I was astounded as I had never come across this before. At first we thought we were the only ones being affected.
"When we raised the issue at the Midlands Retail Crime Partnership forum we felt a bit daft, but when we mentioned it other places said it had happened to them too."
PC Walton and Mr Goodchild are advising stores to reduce the amount of gum they have on display and to heighten their security.
Mr Goodchild said the issue would also be raised at the West Midlands Regional Crime Initiative on Tuesday.
PC Walton said: "There is no market for chewing gum theft in this country, so we are going round making stores aware of it."
Romanian student Ioana Enea, 20, from Moldova, in Eastern Romania, said it was "not uncommon" to receive gum instead of change in her home country.
The digital design student, who is currently studying at the University of Dundee, said: "Bubble gum or other small candies are used as small change but only if the cashier is out of small change and you are asked beforehand if you wish to have a piece of gum instead of currency.
"Usually people use large notes to pay for items and shopkeepers, especially in small shops, don't have much small change and that is why they use gum or candy when they run out of it. This is not an uncommon practice."
It can come as a shock to the uninitiated however.
John Bagley is an engineer from Warwick who started working in Romania in 2010.
He said: "I was given chewing gum at the train station in Bucharest.
"It was a bit of a shock at first. I was just buying some water at one of the little kiosks before I got on the train and had handed over some notes and got given some gum instead of bani [the equivalent of pence in sterling]."
The Ratiu Family Charitable Foundation promotes Romanian culture in Britain.
Ramona Patrica, the foundation's director, said Romanians were not obsessed with chewing gum.
"Chewing gum is not a national sport in Romania or anything like that. I had never heard of this before now, although I think it is quite funny and a bit weird," she added.