SPECIAL REPORT - Gangs of shoplifters targeting Harrogate

Police would like to talk to this woman in connection with a theft from Bijouled in Harrogate. (S)
Police would like to talk to this woman in connection with a theft from Bijouled in Harrogate. (S)

Gangs of shoplifters are travelling to Harrogate to target the town’s stores, an Advertiser investigation has revealed.

Reports of shop thefts in the town are up 24 per cent in just one year, rising from 364 to 451, according to the latest police figures.

And local businesses say thieves are travelling from further afield – from Bradford, York, Leeds and even Huddersfield – to target the town’s stores.

“It’s shocking,” said Georgina Collins, owner of boutique store Bijouled in Harrogate. “We’re an independent business, and whatever we lose is gone.

“The impact is huge. It makes you feel vulnerable, and suspicious of everybody, when the vast majority of those who come in are just lovely customers.”

Mrs Collins has run the Bijouled store on Parliament Street for more than five years.

Now she says her store, and dozens of others, are being targeted by gangs of criminals travelling from towns and cities across North and West Yorkshire with the express purpose of shoplifting.

Thieves are working their way through department stores and supermarkets, stealing goods from 50in TVs to bottles of perfume.

It comes at a huge cost to the public purse, because every instance of shoplifting is said to take police around four hours to investigate.

Favoured thefts include expensive razor blades, alcohol, and even meat – which is easy to sell and quick to dispose of.

It is not a new phenomenon, say CCTV operators, but one that is becoming increasingly apparent in the midst of an economic downturn – and as Christmas is approaching.

“We have seen an increase in shop thefts year on year in Harrogate,” said Safer Neighbourhoods Commander Supt Aubrey Smith, admitting it was a concern.

But to put it in perspective, he added, it was a rise of 87 thefts, with Harrogate still ranking second overall for its crime figures out of 15 comparable districts.

Supt Smith says officers are working closely to reduce opportunities for theft. But in the run-up to Christmas, and in tough economic times, they are seeing a rise.

“Shoplifting is traditionally a seasonal problem,” he said. “And the economy may have an impact.

“We have food banks now in Harrogate. We have an increase in the number of people sleeping rough. The economic downturn is having an effect.

“If people are struggling and see something they need, it can become part of a regular shop.”

Special theft campaigns are soon to be launched to raise awareness for shoppers, while initiatives to share information among businesses are proving a huge success.

One programme, called the Harrogate District Businesses Against Crime, sees town-centre businesses linked up via radios to other central stores.

Julia Stack, head of community safety and CCTV, says businesses can share intelligence on travelling gangs, their plans and their modus operandi – the way they work.

“It’s about sharing information and images so we know what the criminals are trying to do,” she said. “We know who they are and what they’re up to.”

‘It feels personal’

Distraught business owner Georgina Collins says her boutique shop is being targeted by “brazen” travelling thieves.

“It’s traumatic,” she said. “We’re such a friendly shop here, but some people are so brazen.

“It’s happening to all kinds of shops. It’s a worse problem in Harrogate than I ever realised. I used to have a shop near Halifax and we had nothing like the problems that we do here.”

Thieves are travelling across the county to steal, she said, adding that she once caught someone from Huddersfield.

“There’s a network of people who are targeting shops like ours,” she said. “It’s not a nice feeling. It’s more than just dishonest.”

And the thieves, she said, rather than being people who are down on their luck, are often affluent, charming women.

“If you go on your instincts, you often get it wrong,” she said. “It’s not often the ones you suspect.

“Most are woman, aged in their late 40 or early 50s. They are smartly dressed, quite charming.

“Sometimes people work in pairs, one distracts you while the other steals.

“One was about to start a teaching career. She said she stole because she had no money. Another came back almost straight away. Some women like the thrill of it.

“But we have wised up now. They wear sunglasses, hats, to hide from the cameras.”

Bijouled was targeted a fortnight ago by a blond woman who stole four Vivienne Westwood scarves - worth around £300 - by grabbing them before walking out of the store.

Her image was caught on the store’s new super CCTV, installed after two attempted thefts where men actually tried to climb into a window display to steal handbags.

Police are now trying to trace this woman, pictured, in connection with the theft.

“We’re an independent business,” said Mrs Collins. “We can’t get the money back - and we’re not covered by insurance.

“But it’s not just the financial implications. It spoils it for everybody.

“This last theft has really upset me. It’s like having your house broken into. It feels personal.”

Advertiser investigation

Stark figures revealed in an Advertiser investigation show that nearly a quarter of all shop thefts were reported in just one supermarket - Asda.

The statistics, uncovered through a Freedom of Information request, show 106 of the district’s shop thefts - and three per cent of the district’s total crime - is reported here.

The figures have almost halved, from 219 two years ago, but Asda still ranks as one of the district’s crime hotspots.

And as a result, the entire Low Harrogate area ranks in the top three out of 195 North Yorkshire wards for shoplifting crimes.

Police say they are working closely with the general manager to cut crime figures further.

“Asda Harrogate continues to be a crime hot spot for shop theft,” said police crime reports. ”It is easily accessible from the town centre with large entrances and exits.

“A new general manager has committed to a close working relationship with police and an assessment has been carried out by our architectural liaison officer to identify opportunities to make the premises more secure.”

Asda’s general store manager Martyn Stainton said: “We have an excellent working relationship with the police and a strong positive presence in the community.

“Through working with the police and the local community over the last two years we’ve managed to halve the number of incidents at store and we will continue work closely with the police to bring this figure down even further.”