Watching the Detectives

By DC Kevin Parley & DC Thomas Grimshaw -
The Sweeney
John Thaw and Dennis Waterman in the 1970s TV version of The Sweeney – a fictional view of life inside the Flying Squad

Back in the early-1990s, mobile phones had SIMs the size of credit cards and most people wore watches that ran on batteries. A quarter of a century later, the number of people owning high-end mechanical watches has increased exponentially and, unfortunately, as the appreciation and awareness of valuable watches has grown in the legitimate watch-collecting community, it has also increased the demand by organised criminals. Whether your new timepiece is on your wrist or stowed away in your house, there are a number of things you should do with your watch if you want to protect it and – if you are unlucky enough to have it stolen – recover it.

New Scotland Yard's Flying Squad
A watch display case damaged during an attempted smash-and-grab that was foiled by the Flying Squad earlier this year

Buy Safe

Firstly, you should purchase your watch though a reputable retailer. This doesn’t mean you should only buy new watches, or buy solely from high street retailers, but you should research the company you are buying from and check reviews by others who have used them. One benefit of dealing with an established company is that it should keep a detailed database with full details of your watch and it also means they should have made full checks to verify that your pre-owned watch is the real deal, has all genuine parts, a service history and is not circulated anywhere as stolen. In addition, dealing with a reputable dealer makes if far more straightforward to address any faults with the timepiece or obtain a refund or replacement if appropriate.

In the past ten years, there has been an explosion of pre-owned watch dealers and watch companies that now rival authorised high-street dealers in terms of numbers and units shifted. Most of the pre-owned watch companies are reputable, but buyers should always approach any transaction with caution and make as many enquiries as possible. Ask to see the box and papers and check they are genuine and relate fully to the serial number and unique reference number of the watch – the retailer will be happy to do this to show the legitimacy of the timepiece. In addition, ask the retailer how the brand of watch that you are purchasing records the details of the genuine owners of their watches.

If buying a pre-owned watch, consider getting an insurance valuation in the store so that you can give your insurers an accurate figure for replacement if it is stolen, lost or broken. Some retailers offer valuation through independent companies; this is obviously more relevant for used watches as a new watch has the recommended retail price to establish its value.

Never, under any circumstances, meet with people who you don’t know at quiet or secluded locations with a view to buying a watch. Thieves use this tactic to lure victims to a private place where they can rob them of the cash they have brought to purchase the watch.

The Right Steps

Before you take ownership of your watch, you should have the right insurance in place to immediately protect it. Make sure that the policy covers the watch both in and out of the home and whether it is being worn or not. Some credit cards offer extra protection for watches purchased with the card, but you need to fully read terms and conditions as this varies with different companies. Always fully check the terms of the insurance you take out to protect your watch

When you get the watch home, if you are not wearing it, it is best to have it in a locked safe which is firmly bolted to a wall. Be mindful of the temperature and environment inside that safe as it is no good protecting your watch against theft if you let the environment or humidity inside the safe damage it while it is stored.

Before you put the watch in your secured discreet place or on your wrist, there are a few simple procedures you can follow that will increase the likelihood of identifying and returning it if you are unlucky enough for it to be stolen:

  1. Take pictures of your watch to record all of its unique details. Photograph the front, both sides and back, showing any unique serial numbers, specific marks or personalisation/engravings.
  2. Photograph the box and paperwork that came with your watch. This will remind you of exact serial numbers and price paid and will greatly assist police, retailers and insurance companies trying to recover your watch if it is stolen.
  3. Email the photographs to yourself so that you have a permanent record of when you did this.
  4. Always keep your watch paperwork separate from your watch as it is harder for criminals to sell them on without the paperwork and hence less desirable to steal if not readily re-sellable.
Hatton Garden Safety Deposit Company
Hatton Garden Safety Deposit Company
Hatton Garden Safety Deposit Company
Hatton Garden Safety Deposit Company

Happy Returns

If the worst happens and a criminal does steal your watch, you need to report it immediately. The police will provide you with a crime reference number, which you should pass on to your insurance company. By informing them exactly where the theft took place, officers will be able to highlight likely suspects that frequent that area, helping them to identify the criminal involved and likely addresses where they will store or sell on the stolen property. For example, some thieves may target high-end nightclubs where people could be wearing valuable watches and are likely to be under the influence of alcohol – this can make victims easy targets for thieves.

One robbery method is popular with criminals known as “hugger muggers”. These thieves befriend people who are drunk and hug or dance with them. At the same time the criminal is removing their watch or other valuables. In this scenario, the victim often doesn’t realise they have been robbed until much later.

When reporting the stolen watch, ensure that you give police as much detail as possible. This is where all the facts and details you have recorded and emailed to yourself come in to play. We have dealt with a variety of cases where victims did not have their stolen watches returned to them by police because they couldn’t provide a serial number for the watch or prove ownership. The police property system can be searched on brand but the only way to get an exact match is by providing the correct model and serial number. The email, including the pictures of the watch, can be sent to the police so that if recovered the watches are easily identifiable and more likely to be returned to you. Police will circulate the watch on their database, but it is equally important that you inform the retailer who sold you the watch. They can then update their records to show it as a stolen item if it is brought to the store for repair or offered for sale.

You should also contact the watch brand to ensure your watch is shown on their database as stolen in case it is brought in for repair or service by the thief or the person handling the stolen item. Many watches are restored to owners in this way – even years after the theft. But, although some brands will keep a log of stolen watches such as Rolex, Breitling and TAG Heuer, not all brands do this and there is no central registration database available. The Met’s Flying Squad continues to work with brands and retailers to improve this.

Finally, it is important to remember that stolen watches get sold both locally and internationally, with the trade for them being well-organised by criminal gangs. With this in mind, it is always worthwhile circulating your watch with privately run databases that can help identify and recover your stolen watch globally. While there are several databases that record stolen property, the biggest external base where you can report a stolen watch and carry out a search on a watch is the Watch Register, a division of the Art Loss Register.

All types of theft differ, but all have in common the likelihood that the stolen objects – works of art, luxury automobiles or fine watches – will be sold on to accomplices or unsuspecting “marks”. With due diligence, your treasured timepiece will stay, or be returned to, where it belongs: on your wrist.

New Scotland Yard's Flying Squad
The Flying Squad took on smash-and-grabs as part of its remit five years ago and today deals with offences like the recent attack on a pre-owned watch store on London's Piccadilly

The Flying Squad

The Metropolitan Police Service “Flying Squad” can trace its origins back to the very beginning of recognisable policing in London and prides itself on being the longest-established specialist detective department in the world. It was established in 1918 by Detective Chief Inspectors Fred Wensley and Wally Hambrook who headed a Task Force of just 12 handpicked detectives with proven ability as thief-takers. Unlike their colleagues, they were given a roving commission and a vehicle which meant they were able to move around London with the same ease as the offenders they targeted. Because of the unit’s ability to respond across London the term “Flying Squad” was established in 1920 by a journalist, ironically named W.G.T. Crook.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Flying Squad was involved in cases dealing with Gangland London including investigations into the Krays, the Richardsons and the Great Train Robbery. The Squad grew in fame in the 1970s with the success of the TV show The Sweeney – a reference to Sweeney Todd, which is Cockney rhyming slang for Flying Squad. In recent years. the Squad has continued to target organised criminals carrying out commercial robberies including cash-in-transit robberies.

In December 2012, the Flying Sqaud took on smash-and-grab offences as part of its remit and since then there has been a significant reduction in the number of offences that take place at luxury watch and jewellery retailers. This success highlights that having a specialist unit dealing with these type of offences does impact on the crime and its perpetrators. Whether it’s a lone offender with a handgun attacking a corner shop, a team of organised criminals attacking a luxury watch retailer or a national gang stealing the De Beers diamond from the Millennium Dome, you’ll know who to call.

New Scotland Yard's Flying Squad