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We Went On Patrol with Central London's Undercover Anti-Pickpocketing Unit

Turns out Brits are terrible at thieving compared to Chileans.

Two suspected pickpockets being searched on Oxford Street by plain-clothes police officers (whose identities have to be concealed because it would make their job kind of hard if everyone knew what they looked like)

Of the £5 billion of transactions that took place on Oxford Street in 2014, many more happened without the say-so of the person paying up. While the Topshops and H&Ms and Zaras will do you the courtesy of swiping your card at the till, other international organisations are taking your wallet. And your phone. And your handbag. All while you stare dumbly at the fancy new John Lewis window display.

These aren't opportunist bag-dippers who've seen a chance and taken it. They are highly skilled, organised squads of world-class thieves, working in relay tandem.

They fly in for one weekend, fill their boots (one gang recently made off with £140,000 cash in a single day) and head off to the next city – Madrid, Barcelona, Milan – making them almost impossible to catch. When they're gone, another team takes their place.

According to police, the Chileans are the best, then the Romanians, and then a whole league of nations fills the places for minor honours. This isn't to say there aren't homegrown criminals, but – as with the football – England probably wouldn't make it out of the group stages in a World Cup of snatching.

As I follow PC Darren Bond of the "Oxford Street, Regent Street, Bond Street Pickpocket team" (ORB) on his weekend retail beat, he tells me, "I wouldn't ever say that if you come from certain nations you're here to thieve. That's just not true. But we do see trends – anecdotally, around 70 percent of arrested pickpockets are Romanians or Bulgarians, 10 percent young Algerian males, 5 percent Chileans, etc. The rest would be UK-based thefts. Big city theft is now organised, international crime with bosses and a hierarchy."

So why are the Chileans best? "They are intelligence-led – they don't go after anyone but wealthy tourists – and operate in mixed teams of three to six, often middle-aged," says Bond. "They will look like a nice family or group of businessmen to fit in. It allows them to walk through hotels unchallenged, sit down and have breakfast, then walk out with bags, laptops, etc. They are so hard to trace. They will be here on a six-month VISA, go off on a European tour, then pop up again in London later. We have to trawl through weeks of CCTV footage just to keep track of what members are in any Chilean gang at any one time. You are constantly creating a web of info."

The best groups work like this: they will spot a target in a department store or coming out of a hotel, they will track them throughout the day, often swapping roles as lookout or following in close pursuit. Then they'll swoop, while you're trying on shoes, sat at a coffee table or on an escalator. Escalators are useful as the narrow exit means you can be blocked; a lady accomplice might accidentally drop her bags to seal the exit, then shoppers naturally bump into each other, forming the perfect ruse for bag dipping.

A group of young teenagers being questioned on Oxford Street

The skill level is high. Two Chilean women were arrested and charged after wearing burkas to rob wealthy Arab tourists filing out of Park Lane and Mayfair.

"Generally, security guards and shop staff don't question middle-aged women in Islamic clothing," says Bond. "It allows them to get close and then drop the edges of their garment over your bag and just take it away. The two women we caught were working alongside two or three males who were on a separate scam, but constantly passing information to each other. We apprehended the women with a bag containing €130,000 and £20,000, then gold and diamond jewellery. As I say, the Chileans don't mess about."

So committed are the theft factories the professional thieves from Chile train in, Met officers report many arrested have scarring on their hands, earned from stealthily lifting items from handbags filled with razor blades.

PC Bond's small group work 12-hour plain-clothes shifts in the most hectic shopping district in Europe. Pushing through the claustrophobic thrum of Oxford Street, the slow churn of customers congesting the tube station, every second you face a shoulder charge or blocked path. Forget running after bad guys; this is all about analysing faces and tracking potential offenders in mass crowds.

Despite his squad achieving a 50 percent drop in thefts in the last 12 months, his job is a living migraine, says PC Bond: "Every day you are looking for offenders among hundreds of faces you see each minute. It's very hard and – with many thefts – you have to catch them in the act to prove they did it."

We spend hours walking around in circles, taking phone calls or tips from in-store detectives. The police team operate like the thieves – acting alone or in groups, having a mixed team and regularly changing clothes, hats or jackets. If a known pickpocket gang are in the area, we follow them, but even when you suspect a thief may have nicked a phone, they give it to a pal stood outside the door who gives it to someone else. The best thieves work in chains and are rarely, if ever, caught in possession.

The manager of a big chain's flagship store on Oxford Street tells us on our rounds, "The gangs are big and have many different fronts. We intercept sweet old ladies with dodgy cards to groups of lads who are inexplicably hanging around the ladies' section after bags."

We're staking the outside of a designer outlet on Regent Street when a grey security tag spins to the floor from a jacket. The man who's unpicked it stealthily folds the garment over his arm and goes to walk out. It's here where we intercept him. The man, and another guy he's with, are Romanian and are found to have a stash of clothes without receipts, a load of phones they have no passwords for and multiple denominations of cash.

The handcuffs are on, but the gears of justice grind slowly. The suspect can't identify any of the numbers or pictures in any of the phones he claims are his, and insists the security tag just fell off in his hand.

Officers checking the phones the suspects had on them

ORB officer PC Paul Penrose says that if these two suspects are charged it's unlikely he'll see them again in this group. "With the Romanians or eastern Europeans, they all move around – up north or to a new country entirely," he tells me. "Few stay here for longer than three months. Even the Romanian beggars work in chains, having people come and collect their money so it isn't confiscated at source. The thieves are operating in gangs and each will have their own specialism – bag thefts, ATM fraud, pickpocketing."

Unlike in the UK, getting a new identity is relatively easy in Romania. A felon can go home and come back with a whole new ID within a matter of weeks. What they can't change, though, is their face, which is where the ORB team come in.

One senior officer tells me, "We had a South American gang who had been operating in the area. They had been hitting bars, restaurants, shops. They may have made off with as much as £1 million in just a few months. But we couldn't lay a glove on them. Then I saw one of them out and about and followed them until they committed a theft. We eventually pulled them in and managed to charge them with 15 offences and [got] a custodial sentence."

The offences don't stop when shops close. "Hugger mugging" – a crime popular with Algerian gangs – is common across Soho and Mayfair. These are groups of men who target wealthy drunks in central London, usually on side streets. They'll go to high five a victim, grab their hand and – while a cohort body blocks or distracts them – they'll slip your watch off your wrist. While working in the area, an officer himself was even targeted, giving chase as the assailants made off down a side street.

The attempts for cash are endless in W1. In the last few weeks, the number of reported thefts around flower sellers has also spiked. "They use the flowers as means to get close to the table, then, with their hand under the flowers, swipe the table of any valuables," one female officer tells me.

The job can be a dangerous one. In the last few weeks PC Bond has had a couple of teeth punched out, and a female colleague was knocked unconscious when tackling an eastern European offender who made off in a getaway car.

Though, as you've probably realised by now, it's often hard enough to get that close to them in the first place.

@andyjoneswrites / jackpasco.com

A few more times we've been out on patrols:

With Security at Boomtown Festival

With North London's Crime-Fighting Orthodox Jews

With Brixton's Black Revs: The Radicals Fighting for the UK's Illegal Immigrants

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