Don't Buy Candy From … Children

The sales are often scams; the kids are underpaid and exploited.

June 23, 2008 — -- It's summer, and that means that you will probably be approached by some "candy kids" any day now. You see them downtown, on the subway, at your own front door in the suburbs.

They sell chocolate for a cause — or so they say. These kids often claim they're peddling candy so they won't have to peddle drugs. Sound familiar?

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About 50,000 children nationwide are involved. They're often underprivileged and underage. Make no mistake: These are not your neighbor's kids selling something to support their soccer team or Girl Scout troop. These children are often poor, and they're bused in to sell to you. The U.S. Department of Labor says it's being exploited by greedy adults.

They sell sweets, but bite in deep enough and you will taste the truth. That's what I learned when I spent a summer on the streets following candy kids. One boy told me he was selling candy for the Just Say No program at his school. When I called his school, I learned there was no such program. A girl said she was selling boxed candy for her basketball team. That was a lie. A group of kids said they were with a nonprofit organization founded to keep kids off the street. The group didn't exist.

But the kids aren't the ones at fault. Crooked adults called candy crew leaders run these candy rings. The two crew leaders I investigated both had criminal records. One man had been arrested for battery, possession of heroin and receiving stolen property. The other had spent two years in prison for firearms violations and also had convictions for cruelty to animals, drug dealing and shoplifting. Crew leaders recruit candy kids near schools, in public housing complexes — even homeless shelters. Parents go along with it because they don't care or don't know better.

The crew leaders tell the kids what to say and sometimes give them laminated identification cards to show customers. They pick the kids up by van early in the morning, and drop them off in malls or neighborhoods far from home. The van returns for the kids after they've worked a 12-hour day. Often the children go without food, water or a bathroom break during their shift. There's no supervision and authorities are aware of cases in which candy kids were mugged or raped while working.

So is the work worth it? No.

One of the groups I investigated gave the children 40 cents for each $2.50 candy they sold. The bars wholesaled for 35 cents, so the crew leaders made a tasty profit. If the children showed up late to meet the van or goofed off on the ride home, the crew leader docked their meager pay. Many candy crews tout the fact that they reward the children with excursions to water slides and theme parks. My investigation showed those excursions either didn't happen or the kids had to pay their own way using their candy earnings.

So what's the law and how can this happen? Each state has its own child labor laws. Typically states allow children to begin working between ages 12 and 16, but there's little enforcement. I met kids on the street who were as young as seven. Police departments aren't trained or equipped to tackle this problem and labor departments are chronically understaffed. Plus if authorities do crack down, often candy crew leaders just move across state lines.

So when will this cruel scam end? When customers stop buying.

Do Your Homework

Ask questions. Ask the kids how much money they make off of each candy bar or box. Find out how they got to the spot where they approached you. If they say they're with a school, call up the school on your cell phone and check.

Be vigilant. If you see candy kids going door to door in your neighborhood, call the police and ask your neighbors to call too. When police realize citizens are upset about this child exploitation, they'll learn how to work with labor departments to stop it.

Don't buy from candy kids. If you must help these kids, you could consider giving them a "donation" instead. Many kids actually ask for donations, which is tantamount to organized begging.

Where to Complain

Your local police department and your state labor department.