Conmen, who stole more than £9,000 of stock from a cancer charity, have left its Ilkeston shop facing closure and its staff fearing for their futures.
The husband and wife team, who run tiny charity Cancer Relief UK, say they were devastated after they were duped by professional-looking conmen.
Now, left with no money to buy more stock or meet overheads, their three stores –including Cash 4 Clobber in Granby Street – face the chop.
Steve and Tracey Coupe set up the charity in Chesterfield in 2008 after family and friends were affected by cancer.
“It’s just completely devastated us,” said Steve, 46.
“I can’t think any lower of these people – the lowest thing you can do is to rob from a charity.”
The charity helps cancer patients buy wheelchairs, meet travel costs and has even paid more than £10,000 to fly patients to USA for operations.
It earns its cash by buying clothes by weight, either in their charity shops or in bulk from other firms, and selling them on for a profit.
Steve received an email from a company calling itself Starmex Networks in May, offering £1,400 a tonne for clothes –much more than the usual rate.
After checking the firm was real, he visited their plush rented office space in Maidstone, Kent, where official-looking agreements were drawn up and signed.
“We were ecstatic,” said Steve, “But we tried to keep a lid on it because they seemed so professional.”
The firm wanted 16 tonnes of clothes but Steve was only able to offer 6.5 tonnes in the first shipment.
A lorry was sent out to collect the clothes with a promise that £9,100 would be in the charity’s account the next day.
But the money never arrived, despite dozens of phone calls from Steve.
“We’ve been left in a really precarious position – it’s just so desperate,” he said.
Derbyshire police confirmed it is investigating and so too is Trading Standards.
It is thought the conmen could hail from Lithuania, but Steve’s hopes of bringing them to justice, he said, are fading.
He is asking the bank for an overdraft in a bid to keep the charity alive, but is facing the prospect of closing the shops opened last year in Ilkeston and Kirkby-in-Ashfield and Chaddesden just 10 weeks ago.
The move would mean four paid staff losing their jobs, including Sam Snailham at Ilkeston and a group of volunteers.
He said: “I’m worried I might not have a job by the end of the week.”
Steve has asked Ilkeston folk to help where they can by donating clothes at the Granby Street store or by making cash donations via the charity’s website www.cancerreliefuk.org
“It’s hard times for everyone at the minute and there are appeals going on all over the place,” he said.
“But we have got no choice but to ask for help.”