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Saturday, Dec 02, 2023

Inside the capital’s terrifying e-bike crime epidemic

Inside the capital’s terrifying e-bike crime epidemic

Street robberies went up 19 per cent in the year to February — with perpetrators on super fast bikes escaping with frightening ease. Anthony France and Jonathan Kanengoni go on patrol with the Venice Squad, a specialist Met police unit tackling the problem.
The £4,900 Sur-Ron off-road cycle is so lightweight it can reach speeds of up to 50mph. Police say that by weaving through traffic the electric bike can easily beat the 40 minutes it often takes a car to get from Green Park to Finsbury Park. A.

This is a well-worn route for the stealth e-bikes when used by masked robbers behind a 19 per cent rise in luxury watch and mobile phone snatches. Last month, Evening Standard journalists joined the Metropolitan Police’s elite Operation Venice squad on patrol. They are cracking down on these kinds of offenders by targeting robbery hotspots in the central, south and west parts of London. Each week an average of 180 victims are attacked for their valuables on the street. Like paralegal Kathryn, 24, who was bundled screaming into a side road near Waterloo after muggers spotted a £3,700 Rolex on her wrist.

Kathryn said: “I was on the phone to my friend who I was meeting. As I got to the zebra crossing, these two guys, one with a Covid face mask and the other with a hat pulled down over his eye, whispered: ‘Pretty girl, let me talk to you’.

“I firmly said ‘no’ and carried on walking, but one grabbed my wrist. He started dragging me by the hand.

“My friend could hear me on the phone screaming. They were pulling me into a side street, I thought I was going to get raped. Fortunately, some members of the public ran towards me. The men ran down an alleyway and weren’t seen again.”

She called 999 and police arrived swiftly but the pair were long gone.

At Southwark police station, Detective Inspector Treasa O’Donoghue (below) is briefing Venice interceptor officers before they hit the streets at 3pm. The team, in marked cars and on BMW motorbikes, are authorised to use “tactical contact” to bump suspects off mopeds or e-bikes.

Although most violent crime rates, including murders, have fallen in the capital, Met Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley says the rise in muggings is unacceptable. Robbery increased by 19 per cent in the year to February and a quarter of the offences involved a knife. Smartphones are the property most often stolen, followed by cash, purses and jewellery. A total of 9,261 phones have been snatched in the past 12 months, a 23 per cent increase.

Sir Mark said robbers are preying on commuters and tourists returning after the Covid pandemic. “Our operations need to be sophisticated. It’s not just about targeting on the streets. We’re doing undercover operations to catch offenders but also identifying where the stolen phones are going, who’s recycling them, and going after them because that cuts off the criminal business.”

Such is the reputation of the Venice squad, though, that within hours of them flooding an area, criminals have shared the news on Snapchat or plotted officers’ locations on social media.

Heading out with the squad in a marked Volvo, to Borough High Street and then towards Elephant and Castle, our reporter notices how many mopeds and motorbikes are on the roads.

Within minutes, PCs Victoria Blanks and Michael Dobson receive a report of a young man on a Yamaha TMax scooter. A police computer check shows the vehicle is uninsured and was recently sold at auction. It previously failed to stop for officers and the registered keeper has a long criminal history. PC Dobson accelerates and, with police motorbike rider Sgt Ryan Perry leading, we pursue the TMax to Bermondsey with blue lights and a siren.

The driver, in his twenties, is stopped but is allowed on his way after proving he insured the bike a few days ago. The police system hadn’t been updated. Within an hour, he is seen circling the area with a pillion passenger as if scouring for police patrols. He is pulled over by a local unit and again let go. It’s a game of cat and mouse.

O’Donoghue’s biggest headache is the Sur-Ron, first used in at least two fatal shootings on Merseyside in 2021. The Chinese-made e-bike is silent closing in on victims and is capable of high speeds with a small modification to its battery output. The Yard is holding talks with the Home Office and Birmingham-based Sur-Ron UK, Britain’s sole legitimate importer and distributor.

On February 15, police arrested an 18-year-old on a Sur-Ron after he robbed an American tourist and three other people within 15 minutes in Westminster. Officers had spotted two suspects on electric bikes who saw them and made off. One mounted the pavement through bollards onto a pedestrianised area. The other rider went down three lanes of oncoming traffic in Euston Road to escape. After being bumped off his e-bike by an officer in a Volvo estate, he fled on foot discarding four mobiles.

But the teenager was arrested just after 10pm in Collier Street, near King’s Cross St Pancras. Three devices were reunited with their owners and the suspect bailed.

In June, police received multiple calls to suspects on Sur-Ron bikes committing robberies in Oxford Street. After a short chase, they were detained with several stolen phones and a blade.

Det Insp O’Donoghue admits: “These Sur-Ron e-bikes are difficult to target. They can go through red lights, with or against the flow of traffic, carrying out phone snatches along the way. If we get an influx of them, it will be trouble.

“But at the moment there are very few in London. They all look the same and have no distinguishing marks. The speeds they can get to are incredible.”

Recent cases highlight the importance of dialling 999 immediately if Londoners see a robbery or have just been robbed. On Valentine’s Day, five teenagers aged between 17 and 18 were arrested an hour after a “terrifying” attack near Tottenham Court Road.

The males had assaulted another teenager and stolen his phone at about 9pm. Officers from the Violent Crime Taskforce were on patrol when the victim made them aware and they tracked the suspects to Leyton. The stolen mobile was found on one of them. The suspects have been released on bail.

Det Insp O’Donoghue blames the rise in robbery on “the times we’re living in”, adding: “It’s an easy crime to commit, it’s quick. But what we have done is apprehend those responsible and put a case against them by having officers with the specific skill set to target them.

“My message to victims is phone 999 straight away. Ask a member of the public, shop or restaurant if you can borrow their phone. Sometimes people ring us two hours later, but by then it’s lost.” She added: “People should be able to do or wear what they want, however, I’m asking them to be careful in public.

“Plan your route and keep an eye out, especially when coming home late at night or standing outside clubs, Tube stations and transport hubs.” As Met chief Sir Mark alluded to, the Yard will step up its war on resellers willing to pay hundreds of pounds for the latest smartphones. When a phone is stolen, it is often sold on quickly before it can be traced. Skilled thieves can reset a phone and swap its SIM card in minutes.

Gangs have been caught exporting handsets overseas. Others will crack the mobile’s security to steal personal data for fraud, and there is a huge black market for such information. Apple ID, financial and Amazon accounts can be hacked to make large purchases, and some offenders will seek to use photos, texts or emails for blackmail.

In Kathryn’s case, the police investigation found no trace of the robbers on CCTV or the method of escape.

She said: “I felt violated… The robbers must have been watching me. It has made me very wary of going around London. I don’t wear expensive things any more, I don’t wear my watch, I don’t wear my necklace. It’s not safe.

“When police watched footage of me trying to thwart them, the officer said: ‘You put up a good fight.’ But I have post-traumatic stress disorder — never has someone grabbed and assaulted me.”

Sur-Ron UK owner Andrew Shepherd said the firm is fully co-operating with law enforcement. He added it was disappointing that e-bikes, originally designed for sport and to reduce noise or air pollution, were being misused.

His authorised dealerships require customers to provide their personal details and register a warranty to deter crime. But Mr Shepherd believes robbers are importing cycles or buying them from online sellers.

He told the Standard: “We don’t want people committing crime on electric bikes and Sur-Ron is getting a bad name. “For every one that creeps into the UK, we are not selling so it’s in our interest to work with police forces. “The off-road variant should only ever be ridden on private land and never on the public highway.”

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