London robbery gangs are using ‘spotters’ inside top London stores to identify wealthy jewellery buyers to target on the street.
The spotters target counters and concessions at some of Britain’s best-known retailers to identify well-heeled customers before alerting fellow gang members outside the stores, industry experts have warned.
Insiders say that street robberies of expensive watches have become “more frequent and more violent” in London.
It comes amid a continuing rise in robberies to hit an 11-year high with activity focused on London which accounts for four in ten of all such crimes, according to official statistics.
England and Wales saw nearly 19,000 robberies at knifepoint in the year to June 2019, a ten per cent increase from the previous year, according to a national crime survey.
The violent robberies are the most concerning of an uptick in crime connected to luxury watches which have included smash-and-grabs at stores, insurance fraud and counterfeit currency, said the Watch Register, which claims to be the world’s largest database of lost and stolen watches.
“It’s not just random attacks on the street,” said a spokesperson for the group, which seeks to reunite owners with stolen timepieces.
“They have people based around the stores watching people buy from counters.
“Then they make a quick phone call to people outside describing what they look like. Then they attack them on the pavement outside. That has happened really, really regularly.”
Police have had some successes against the violent gangs with eight men jailed in January for stealing watches during street robberies over seven months.
Police described a “shocking level of violence” with some of the victims grabbed around the neck and thrown to the floor while the watches were ripped from their wrists.
Most of them took place at night – while one was during the day when the gang mistook a fake Rolex for the real thing. They were caught after police built up a picture of their crimes using security cameras and intelligence. One robber was jailed for 11 years.
Jewellery shops have joined forces to share security camera footage to try to identify the culprits and to act as an early warning system for high-end jewellers.
This year alone, one network has shared details of 556 crimes and suspicious incidents, including robberies, smash-and-grabs and thefts, said the National Association of Jewellers (NAJ).
“Security is a rising concern for our members,” said NAJ chief executive Simon Forrester. “Our members are increasingly worried about various criminal activities including those linked to spotters.”
Police increased patrols in Knightsbridge last weekend following the stabbing murder of Mohammed Al Araimi, 20, an Omani student, close to the Harrods store. The killing was one of three murders in 12 hours.
Police said Mr Al Araimi and companion was attacked after they were approached by two suspected robbers just after midnight. The victim’s family said that Mr Al Araimi was not wearing a watch when he was attacked and nothing was stolen from him.
But the area has been a hotspot for attacks with criminals attracted to the wealthy area that is well-known for high-end watch retailers and designer outlets. Harrods describes itself as the “ultimate destination for haute horlogerie” and sells watches across two floors.
A senior British police officer sought to reassure Arab tourists on Tuesday, saying that the city remained one of the safest in the world – despite concerns expressed by the city’s mayor that officer numbers in the capital were at their lowest levels for two decades. The problems have seen a surge in private patrols in upmarket districts of the capital.
Government critics say that budget cuts under successive Conservative governments have contributed to rises in crime.
The opposition Labour party has promised to put in place 22,000 extra police officers – 2,000 more than the Conservatives - if it wins power in Thursday’s national elections.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has meanwhile promised that police will have greater powers to target known criminals who have carried knives.