A nine month undercover operation by London’s Metropolitan Police has led to 31 arrests and 27 successful charges of criminals stealing luxury watches from West End hotspots.
Officers identified where, when and how people were being mugged for their prized timepieces.
Intelligence showed suspects targeting victims leaving pubs and nightclubs, most of whom were intoxicated and in a vulnerable state.
Criminals would have spotters looking for the most desirable and resellable watches from the likes of Rolex, Patek Philippe, Richard Mille and Audemars Piguet.
Outside the pub or club, they would be offered drugs or prostituted before taking them to quiet side streets to rob them, or approach them from behind before violently attacking them for their watches.
Incidents spike on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays between 11pm and 4am, Met data reveals.
Details of the operation have been shared with WatchPro today, but the Met activity took place from October to December 2022 and again from March to October 2023 within Soho.
The Met says 40% of all watch robberies in London take place in Soho, Mayfair, South Kensington and Chelsea.
In response to rising levels of watch thefts, officers from the Met Covert Policing Command and central London robbery team sent out undercover officers wearing luxury watches and posing as members of the public at the times in known crime hotspots.
Posing and behaving precisely like the marks the gangs target, the undercover cops would be confronted outside a nightclub or bar.
In one CCTV clip shared with WatchPro a plain clothes police officer is approached in Soho by an offender who reportedly offers to take him to a brothel.
He is then walked through backstreets into a trap set by four hooded individuals who attack him and rip a watch off his wrist.
When they try to run, they are ambushed and arrested by another team of undercover officers.
Over the course of two operations spanning nine months, The Met made 31 arrests, which led to 27 successful charges and 21 convictions to date.
Among the 21 individuals convicted, 14 have so far been sentenced to a total of 26 years, with other cases pending.
Police say the sting is starting to have a deterrent effect on street muggings for luxury watches across Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea and Hammersmith & Fulham boroughs.
The first operation from October to December 2022 saw a drop of 28% in watch robberies across the three boroughs by the end of that three-month period – 43 watch robberies were recorded in October 2022 compared to 31 two months later in December.
Year on year, robberies fell from 429 robberies from March to October 2022 to 361 for the same period in 2023.
Ben Russell, Commander for Met Intelligence, says: “This is a rare chance to give the public insight into the work done by our undercover officers, which resulted in 31 robbers arrested in a 12-month period, all caught red-handed trying to steal high value watches in the heart of the West End. Fourteen have already been sentenced, with more awaiting sentencing and other cases pending.
“Using data and intelligence, we identified the locations and times where these crimes were taking place and deployed undercover officers into the area, as part of our precision-based approach to fighting crime.
“By targeting the people causing the most harm and the locations most frequently linked to crime, we are having a greater impact on keeping our communities safe.
“Undercover operations will always carry an element of personal danger and, while we risk assess all our operations thoroughly, all the officers involved demonstrated extraordinary courage and determination.”
The Met says undercover deployments are just one of a range of measures it is employing to bring down these types of muggings.
These include patrols in hotspots across the capital and campaigns to educate the public about how to minimise the risks of becoming a victim.
“When out and about, it is important that people remain vigilant and aware of their surroundings,” The Met advises. “Our ‘Look Up, Look Out’ campaign encourages members of the public to pay attention to who is around them, keep valuables out of sight, and where possible plan their route before travelling,” it adds.
Owners of high value watches are also told to photograph them for insurance purposes, consider property-marking and registering on a property register database, which can help increase the chances of retrieval of stolen items.