THIEVES broke in to four Basildon town centre charity shops and stole collection boxes, containing as little as £20.

Yet they caused hundreds of pounds worth of damage at each shop.

Two St Luke’s shops, in Market Square and South Walk, plus Scope and the British Heart Foundation stores, both in Southernhay, were hit.

Sue Woolf, manager of the St Luke’s shop in Market Square, said: “This is the second time we’ve been hit in two weeks.

“They haven’t stolen anything of value and what really annoys me is the cost of replacing the window is detracting from what we are trying to do. That’s raising money for the hospice, which already has a deficit.”

Three charity boxes, containing £60, were also swiped from KFC in Southernhay. At each store the crooks smashed a glass window to get in. Police are linking the thefts.

Alison Oakes, manager of the Scope store, which raises cash for cerebral palsy sufferers, said: “They got away with very little, but we had to close the shop for the morning while the window was replaced and pay for the new glass, so it has cost us a lot.”

Carol Pyne, manager of the British Heart Foundation shop, added: “This is devastating. We are a charitable organisation and all they got was a few quid.”

It is believed the thieves got away with around £150 from all five shops, yet caused around £500 damage.

Investigating officer PC Mike Hillis, of Basildon police, said: “These are despicable crimes.

“Any theft or break-in is reprehensible.

“But to target charity shops and, even worse, to steal charity collection boxes, is the lowest of the low.

“If you saw anything or know who is responsible, I would urge you to do the right thing and call police, then we can make sure the thieves spend Christmas behind bars.”

Witnesses to the break-ins, which happened between 5.30pm on Friday and 8.30am yesterday, can contact Basildon police on 0300 3334444 or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555111.