Shoplifters On What They're Stealing Now All the Shops Are Closed

"There's no furlough scheme for us. I can't live like this anymore."
April 22, 2020, 9:00am
shoplifters coronavirus

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Since the UK went into lockdown, a significant decline has been reported in acquisitive crime. Within days of the announcement there were reports of burglary rates in some areas falling by 20 percent, and as of this month burglaries nationwide have fallen by more than a third. But just as law-abiding normies are adapting their behaviours to mitigate the impact of the virus, so thieves are also changing their habits in an attempt to keep their careers intact.

Although some have packed in illegal activity altogether, others have merely altered their crimes of choice, switching to offences made easier by the abandoned streets and glut of vacant properties created by the virus. Will, a former shoplifter from north Manchester, is one of many within their ranks. While he once relied upon shoplifting designer clothes to order, he's recently been forced to make a living stealing equipment from construction sites, with builders still on the job, as they are deemed key workers.

"I'd been pulling over five ton [£500] in a good week, but now there's nothing open other than Wilko and Superdrug," he complains. "Building sites are still going on, so I had to improvise. It's not my thing usually, but what else can I do?"

Although nicking building tools is keeping Will topped up, it's not lucrative enough to be a long-term option. He tells me the pandemic has hammered home the precariousness of his current career path, and even made him contemplate working on one of the sites he currently burgles, with builder apparently a more resilient profession in the face of global crises than "thief". For now, though, he's more concerned about making ends meet until this passes.

"No one knows when this is going to end, and I just can't survive," Will says. "There's no furlough scheme for my game. I can't live like this anymore."

Shoplifters aren't the only criminals losing out; the livelihood of Manchester's sneak-thieves has also been threatened, and they've been forced to diversify into other criminal pursuits. According to Jake, a member of a gang that specialises in various different acquisitive crimes, thieves who once relied on stealth are now carrying out commercial break-ins instead. These burglaries have been made easier by the fact there are fewer potential witnesses on the streets and loads of empty shops. Where they would have previously snuck into the back rooms of jewellers to relieve them of their wares, or distracted shop assistants while an accomplice emptied the display cabinets, former sneak-thieves can now take their pick of various unoccupied businesses that have been forced to place their trust in alarms and safes. Unfortunately for the owners, experienced criminals are well versed at circumnavigating these obstacles and would only typically be dissuaded from a burglary by the prospect of being caught in the act.

"You would have normally waited until it was dark to do something like that [breaking into a shop], but you don't have to wait now because there's nobody about in the day," says Jake. "There's not as much chance of anybody catching you doing it, whether it's police or anybody else."

Busy city-centres would once have been out of bounds for pro burglars, who often prefer to travel into smaller towns with laxer security. However, since lockdown began, high streets have been seen as fair game. While this has led to a spate of city-centre burglaries across the UK, there has been a predictable and sizeable fall in pickpocketing. Pickpockets generally thrive on crowds, and are now finding themselves unable to get close enough to their victims to strike. "They're all struggling," Jake tells me. "You've got to really reassess how you're earning your living now."

Hotel thieves face a similar predicament. The livelihood of this breed of crook entails sneaking into high-class hotel rooms to steal from wealthy guests who have been identified as targets in advance. This was once the main source of income for Jake's friend Jay, who would don a Hugo Boss suit, Rolex watch and Patrick Cox shoes to blend in and relieve guests of their wallets, watches and jewellery. Last year, he managed to steal a Patek Phillippe Aquanaut watch worth around £30,000 after gaining entry to the room of a wealthy gambler he'd tailed back from an upmarket casino. Since the lockdown, his pickings have been considerably slimmer, and big hauls like that are a thing of the past, what with hotels having been repurposed as housing for the homeless. "There's a guy in the same game as me, and the other day he'd been in the back of the Hilton," says Jay. "All he managed to get hold of was some knives and forks from the kitchen."

With all potential crime victims locked up at home, will burglary rates soon go through the roof? Research conducted in the US by Gian Campedelli, Alberto Aziani and Serena Favin of Transcrime suggests otherwise. Campedelli and his team studied the incidence of this type of crime in Los Angeles in the period between the beginning of the lockdown and the 28th of March. They found that the overall rate of burglaries remained stable at first, and then started to drop as the quarantine became stricter. "This suggests that the more stringent the lockdown becomes, the less opportunities are present for burglars," Campedelli speculates.

So does this spell the demise of the professional thief? Probably not – although lockdowns are likely to lead to a substantial reduction in their activities. According to Professor Karl Roberts, a consultant in policing, law enforcement and health security for the World Health Organisation, there's a good chance this decrease will last as long as the pandemic itself: "Burglary may well return to normal levels after lockdown as opportunity to offend increases."

So although we're cooped up in our houses 24/7, worrying about our loved ones getting infected after picking up the wrong tin of beans at Tesco, at least we can take solace in the fact that we're less likely to get our stuff stolen – until lockdown finishes, when everything goes back to normal and the shoplifters and sneak-thieves can prowl among us once again.

@nickchesterv