Foreign gangs 'exploiting' Brits to steal from high streets as shop thefts soar by 50% in London

16 November 2023, 07:42 | Updated: 16 November 2023, 11:05

Police chiefs have warned gangs could be exploiting Brits to carry out crimes on their behalf.
Police chiefs have warned gangs could be exploiting Brits to carry out crimes on their behalf. Picture: Alamy

By Fraser Knight and Connor Hand

Police chiefs are warning that international gangs could be enlisting cash-strapped Brits to steal from high street retailers on their behalf.

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Shop theft has increased drastically over the past year, as figures shared with LBC suggest reports have soared by almost 50% in London in 2023.

Between January and October, the Metropolitan Police received 23,881 calls related to shops being targeted by thieves, according to a freedom of information request submitted by the Liberal Democrats, with an average of 2,653 reports every month.

North Wales Police Chief Constable Amanda Blakeman, who leads nationally on tackling acquisitive crime, told LBC foreign gangs may be “exploiting” people struggling with the soaring cost of living.

She said: “We know from individuals that we've arrested where we have done work, that we have individuals who are travelling here to commit crime… so there is a level of that, and there is a level of those individuals exploiting others to do it on their behalf.”

“And those individuals tend to travel up and down the country. They're not just located in one particular area. They won't be relevant just to London. They will travel right up to Scotland and back down again and be very, very prolific in what they're doing.”

The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), which brings together leaders in policing from across the UK, recently launched Operation Pegasus, to draw a national picture of the involvement of criminal gangs in shop theft and to allow forces to share intelligence more effectively. 

Although the rise in shoplifting is hitting high streets across the country, LBC’s data underlines how problematic it has become in the capital.

Read more: Lidl staff to be given body cameras across more than 960 UK stores in £2m bid to tackle surge of shoplifting

Read more: Manhunt launched for shoplifter who hit baby in the face after stealing from Northumberland shop

The Liberal Democrats’ candidate for London Mayor, Rob Blackie, blasted Sadiq Khan for the recent rise, saying it’s set to be the worst year for shop theft since he took up office.

“The number of Londoners resorting to dialling 999 for shoplifting this year is staggering, t’s going through the roof because criminals just aren’t worried about the police showing up in time. They are acting with impunity.

“This is really another example of the trouble that the Met Police is in under the Mayor, partly because police numbers are falling. Right now, there are 3,000 police officers who should be on the frontline but they’re not because there’s not enough staff supporting them, so they’re stuck in a back office doing admin.”

City Hall responded to Mr Blackie's comments by saying "the Lib Dems should be asking the Tory Government why they have slashed money from the police and preventative services over the past 13 years".

Meanwhile, at the annual summit of police chiefs in London, senior leaders of other forces shared concerns with LBC that they were facing similar problems.

The chair of the NPCC, Gavin Stephens, told us nationally, there’s a £3 billion deficit in police budgets and that ideally, they could do with another 40,000 members of staff to support investigations.

Figures published by the supermarket Co-op earlier this week revealed that on 3,000 occasions where serious offenders were identified and detained in their stores this year - for shop theft or abuse towards staff - police failed to attend over 75% of the time.

Chief Constable Amanda Blakeman explained that officers will attend calls based on ongoing threats and violence and will increasingly use retrospective facial recognition to identify prolific offenders.

She also said in many cases, shops aren’t reporting thefts to them, adding that it’s an area they’re working on to improve.

“Shoplifting damages public confidence and a lot of the time it’s not the police’s fault. If the retailers don’t report it, the police don’t take action and the public sees that. We need to encourage the retailers to report.”

Responding to the findings, Paddy Lillis, the General Secretary of the shopworkers’ union, Usdaw, argued that Britain is facing a shoplifting “epidemic” and that inadequate penalties aren’t enough of a deterrent.

“We are concerned that successive government policies give the impression that theft from shops has effectively been decriminalised.

“Fixed penalty notices for thefts under £200 are leading to too few of these crimes being investigated and prosecuted alongside the recent announcement that fewer ‘low-level offenders’ will be sent to prison.

“Our members are not only in fear of being a victim of crime, they are distressed that too few criminals are being caught and punished.”

As well as the threat to staff, the financial cost to retailers has been a significant cause of concern in recent months. 

An LBC investigation last month found that shops are facing a combined bill of around £1.3bn in stolen goods this year alone.

The British Independent Retailers’ Association reported that shopkeepers are having to sell, on average, an extra twelve items for each product stolen in their stores.

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