Muggers on mopeds prey on wealthy Londoners
Pont Street sits at the heart of London’s most chic and affluent areas, bounded by embassies and the upmarket Harrods store. Even though it was 2am, the smartly-dressed man assumed he was safe walking home.
He realised his mistake three men on a single moped, one of them brandishing a machete, drove on his path. When they ordered him to hand over his watch, he didn’t argue. In a few seconds, they had escaped with a collector’s item timepiece worth £25,000.
The theft was just one in a rash of cases carried out by young men on stolen mopeds targeting expensive watches in some of London’s most affluent areas.
Crimes involving thieves on motorbikes have increased by 30 times in five years since 2012 and increased in severity from simple street snatches to attacks using acid and weapons, according to police data and officials.
Mobile phones have most often been the targets but officials have seen a sharp uptick in more lucrative crimes targeting pedestrians wearing expensive watches. It has added to growing fears about personal safety in the capital where the number of police officers are at their lowest level for 20 years, according to the office of London’s mayor.
“It’s a big issue around here,” said Tony Nash, a former police officer, and one of the founders of My Local Bobby which conducts private patrols in the upmarket districts of Belgravia and Knightsbridge. “There’s a degree of organisation with somebody doing the spotting and then calling in people on mopeds. The victim in Pont Street had an expensive watch, but it was very subtle. He had a jacket and a long-sleeve shirt. You wouldn’t have guessed unless you knew a lot about watches.”
Two men were jailed in May for eight and six-and-a-half years for targeting watch-owners in upmarket parts of London, in one case using a stun gun against their victim. They escaped with watches worth £100,000, including Rolex and Hublot brands and an Audemars Piguet timepiece worth £25,000. None of the watches were recovered.
“Given this level of violence, it is only by sheer luck that none of their victims were seriously injured during these attacks,” said Detective Sergeant Shaun Holyhead of London’s Metropolitan police.
Insurance companies, police forces and individual victims of crime are all putting their details on a privately-run specialist crime database in the hope of recovering the marked and identifiable timepieces before they are sold through the criminal market or broken up.
The database has seen 10,000 expensive watches added in the last year, an increase of some 17 per cent. The Watch Register – part of a global database on looted art – is seeing numbers growing at its fastest rate since it was set up 25 years ago, said officials.
“With these types of crime, they’re gone in 20 seconds,” said Katya Hills, the managing director of The Watch Register. “The police are finding it really hard. They’re using stolen mopeds, they cover their faces and they’re gone.
“The watches on our database generally have a minimum value of one thousand pounds but can sell for anything up to hundreds of thousands of pounds. That’s why they [the thieves] are focusing on watches more and more.”
In the contested area of crime statistics, the rise in moped-enabled crime is a case where crimes have gone through the roof in the capital.
Mopeds are easy targets for theft and while the number of private owners have dramatically reduced – in large part because of security problems – the rise of food and parcel delivery services have balanced the decline, according to industry officials.
With delivery drivers hopping on and off their vehicles and with few places to securely lock them up in the congested old streets of the capital, they are easy targets for looting, and then used to carry out further crime.
Police have released footage of one attempt in Soho Square in central London – home to some of Britain’s biggest film and TV companies – where passers-by were able to film two men attempting to steal motorcycles during day-time using rudimentary power tools.
While one man tried to saw through a motorcycle lock, his accomplice hidden behind a motorcycle helmet threatened those filming the evidence with a hammer. Then they swapped positions.
The attempted theft by Thomas McDermott, 24, and his accomplice Hisham Tawfik, 20, was just one of a series of crimes committed by the gang that specialised in motorbike thefts – and then using them to carry out street robberies in the capital.
Officials say the surge in moped-based crime is built in part on a myth. The death of an 18-year-old who lost control of a moped in December 2014 after being pursued by two unmarked police cars led to criticisms of police over their tactics.
It led to youngsters being pursued by police discarding their safety helmets in the belief that police would no longer chase them, fearful of damage to their careers if their targets died during the chase. The government has several times in parliament been forced to placate concerned lawmakers by saying there has been no change to policy on police pursuing young riders without helmets.
The surge in this form of crime has also been linked to status. Young criminals posted pictures of themselves on stolen bikes on social media to boost their credibility.
Moped-enabled crime was seen as an easy way of making money with police focusing their resources on targeting gang-linked drug dealings and shootings in the capital.
“Drug dealing is very hard now,” a former senior gang member operating in north London told The National.
“Competition has driven down prices. Drug houses are getting raided on a regular basis. So we’ve seen a return to a very simple snatch and grab-style operation. It’s very difficult to apprehend them.
“They might have been caught on CCTV, but that’s all you see. You don’t see much of their faces, the mopeds are nicked. Crime has gone back to basics.”
A cycle ride by The National around central London shows that there are easy pickings to be made by moped-based thieves, where every other person appears to be staring at their phones and oblivious to potential criminal threats around them.
Tony Campbell, chief executive of the Motorcycle Industry Association (MCIA), said that concerted police action against the crime has started to have an effect. Police have combated their criminals using their own lightweight motorbikes and used portable devices to puncture their tyres.
Town Hall officials say figures suggest that the tactics have contributed to crimes using mopeds falling by 50 per cent in March 2018 compared to the previous year.
“It must only be a relatively small number of gang and gang leaders committing these crimes and I think once you start to crack a few of those… and that’s what we’re starting to see,” said Mr Campbell.
But he said the decline disguised a deeper-seated malaise in British society. He called for tougher sentences for offenders – and better infrastructure around the capital with specialist security points to allow moped-users to lock up their bikes without the risk of them being stolen.
“Young people today have no fear of discipline,” he said. “Prison is seen as a trophy … We have to think of smarter ways to create a deterrent. The standards and behaviours an etiquette and just general social skills appears to have disappeared with young people.”