How luxury watches became currency for criminals

But what lies behind this epidemic of robbery? Hills has an idea. Luxury watches, she says, “have become a currency for criminals”. In our increasingly cashless society, senior policemen also observe that robbers and crime lords are now experts in watch values. And as this currency has become more common, so criminal tactics have evolved. 

Today, organised gangs use “spotters” – often attractive young women who flirt with men in bars and clubs to identify a potential victim. Sometimes, as in the Odunlami case, corrupt security staff serve the same purpose. Criminals also study social media for pictures of those, notably celebrities, wearing luxury watches. 

Police admit that watches are an obvious target. The decline of cash has changed crime. A generation ago many people were paid in cash, and stories of armed robberies of security vans were commonplace. So were bank robberies. According to the British Bankers’ Association, in 1992 there were 847 reported raids; over the next 20 years that dropped to just 66. 

By contrast, in 2022 in the United States 80 per cent of payments were made digitally. 

The trend here is the same. Even low-value goods are routinely sold using cards: pubs, coffee bars, newsagents are all increasingly cashless. An estimated 23 million people in the UK used virtually no cash last year and only 4 per cent of workers are paid in cash. Hence the near-disappearance of the security van.

For crooks still hooked on cash, the ATM has become one of the few remaining sources of victims. A friend of mine, a man in his 70s, has been attacked twice in recent weeks, not in some grim impoverished area, but in Chelsea, in broad daylight. He was badly hurt as well as losing substantial amounts of money.

With less cash to rob, goods are being stolen instead. Alarming figures published last month about the rise in shoplifting suggested it cost the retail sector £1.8 billion in 2023, up from £700 million in the previous year. With cash scarce, criminals, often in gangs, steal anything that might hold value and trade goods for money. In one recent incident CCTV footage shows how a gang took less than a minute to steal £30,000 worth of high end puffer jackets from a fashion boutique in Chiswick, West London. 

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