Machete-wielding thieves and vomiting junkies have ravaged our high street – now we're fighting back with clever tricks | The Sun

SPILLING out of a high end designer shop, balaclava-wearing thugs pile into a BMW – before one slashes at a brave shop worker with a machete.

With the help of a pal, the have-a-go hero is miraculously able to salvage the stolen goods without injury before the cowardly thieves make their getaway.

The terrifying scenes outside clothes shop Flannels, captured on camera last month, illustrate the dangers faced by retail workers in Leeds, whose city centre was recently declared the shoplifting capital of the UK.

Crime data revealed the area was the number one hotspot for thieves in 2022, with 2,157 crimes recorded. This is equivalent to six offences every day and an 83 per cent rise on the previous year.

The offence soaring across the whole of Britain, with Home Office figures revealing a 22 per cent increase in offences last year, rising from 256,000 to 314,000.

But concerned shopkeepers in the Yorkshire city told us that these figures are just the tip of the iceberg, with most cases not even reported to cops.

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Retail owners in Leeds are implementing tactics to fight back against the thieves, from using mirrors to banish blind spots, to keeping expensive stock in the back and even hanging clothes in alternating directions to stop criminals making off with handfuls of stock.

'Complete nightmare'

Sean John, 35, and Nancy Amoudi, 36, run exclusive trainer shop Mc Kickz on the main high street in Leeds City Centre, Briggate, selling high end trainers ranging from £250 to £14,000 a pair.

While Sean says he avoids thefts by only putting one shoe from each pair on display, he admits there is no way he can risk putting expensive handbags on the shopfloor.

He said: “When I opened the store I chose a prestigious part of the city centre, which is very secure, with bollards and is highly patrolled, but it has been a complete nightmare since we opened in April 2021. 

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“We have a plot of land behind us and it turns out that this is the area where all the druggies congregate. There used to be bins there, which I have had to fight to move, and they would sleep there.

“This area is next to the City Varieties theatre so the druggies will target the queue as theatre-goers wait to get in, tapping them for money. They will then go out and buy their drugs and share them out between them.

“I’m trying to get the council to help because they are so disgusting to have around. I just don’t want my customers to see that, they are high on drugs and vomiting in the street. It is awful.

“They not only rob places like H Samuel and Fat Face, which have been hit recently, but they’ll also throw their empty bottles and smash storefront windows for no reason.

“We cannot display our £3,000 Goyard Belvedere messenger bags. They would be gone.

“In December we had a PS5 on display for our customers. One day a woman ran in and grabbed it and made a run for the exit but we have a glass door and she smashed straight into it and fell. We just took it off her and she ran off. She was off her head.”

Desperate measures

Hoist installer, Vas Ali, 37, a workman who works on constructing high-rise buildings in the city centre, said colleagues’ work vans are being broken into all the time for their tools.

He said: “Our firm has now started working from estate cars so the thieves don’t know they have tools in them. The problem is getting worse. You can’t keep losing £7,000- £10,000 worth of tools every time you get your van broken into.”

Staff at Ryan Vintage, the oldest vintage clothing store in town since starting up in the 80s, use a clever trick to keep their stock safe.

Pamela Lord is a 62-year-old carer who has been working there for around a month.

She said: “I was told when I started here that there was a problem with shoplifters. When I put the clothes out I have to hang them in alternating directions so people can’t just walk in, grab a giant handful and run out of the store. This works for us.

“I’ve not been here long but I’ve already seen shoplifting in action. Sadly I didn’t see what was going on, I saw a woman looking at clothes and it was only when she had gone that I realised there were empty hangers and I could see what she had done.

“I now know to be more vigilant. We are a small store so it’s not so hard to keep an eye on everyone in the store.

“I can imagine big chains will have it ten times worse because they won’t be able to keep an eye on everyone in there and the shoplifters are going to think they can afford to lose items.”

Sheryl Murtagh, 65, who has been working at cosmetics stall Zest perfumes in the market for 22 years, believes shoplifters are killing off town centres.

She said: “When shoplifters come to us to sell us products I have a go at them. I tell them they are responsible for the fall of our market and high street and they are killing off trade.

“People can’t make an honest living if you are having your stock stolen. I say: ‘Who are you going to steal from when there are no shops left?’

“I tell them we’re camera’d up and we don’t buy. They soon get the message.”

“I know what I’m doing here. I keep an eye on my stall and we have mirrors to cover any blind spots.

“I will make sure to speak to anybody suspicious and let them know we have cameras, just by slipping it into conversation. I will leave customers I can trust at one end and keep an eye on the others. 

“It has definitely gotten worse over the last year or so. The stall has been here 26 years and we got cameras installed when we needed to, around 15 years ago.

Damien Warner, 52, who has worked on the markets all his life and currently works for Steve’s Fruit and Veg, says they sell bowls of produce for £1 and still people try to steal it.

He said: “I know all the tricks in the book – the favourite is when they put their bags on the floor and slip them in.

“You see all sorts of people doing it and when they get caught they will apologise, but they’re only apologising because they’ve been caught. We’re already practically giving away our fruit and veg, what more do they want?

“There’s no wonder shoplifting is on the rise. Nothing is being done about it anymore. There used to be police patrolling around here, now all we have is a couple of security guards.

“We even have to help them when they’re going after somebody.

“We back onto John Lewis here and they had to change the layout of the exit because you’d see people running out of the store with armfuls of stock, running off through the market, it was mad to see.”

Kaitlyn Bullen, 32, brand manager and designer at Blue Rinse vintage clothing store said shoplifting is on their agenda right now as they look at strategies on how to tackle the growing problem in their two stores in Leeds and one in Manchester.

Their flagship store on Call Lane, that has just opened across the road from their original store that opened in 1997, is spread across four floors with their changing rooms located on the top floor, which is a concern.

They now request all customers ask a member of staff before trying on clothes.

Their Merrion Centre store, which opened in April 2023 is one big open space, it is easier to watch over but is easier for thieves to walk in and out of.

Kaitlyn said: “We have to make sure we have valuable items where we can keep an eye on them and we have CCTV covering all spots. 

“We find CCTV is good for following up crime retrospectively but is no good at prevention. People do not care about CCTV.

“It’s a difficult matter because we have a good relationship with our customers and we don’t want to treat everybody as a suspect. 

“But we also don't want to be known as an easy target for thieves. 

No shame

Make-up artists Amelia Myers, 30, and April Jones, visited Leeds Kirkgate Market from Manchester to see what bargains they could find.

Amelia was with her eight-week-old chihuahua when she was approached by “homeless people” trying to sell her some knocked-off perfume.

She said: “I have already been approached by three different people, homeless people who must be operating in this area, to sell me perfume.

“I said I’m not buying fake but they said it’s not fake it’s stolen. I still said no because I didn’t trust who I was dealing with. It didn’t seem right to me.

“It doesn’t surprise me that Leeds is the shoplifting capital. I’ve been here two minutes and this is my experience.”

A woman who works at a nearby Tesco Express, who would not be named, told us that the store opens at 6am but the doors are manually opened and closed by staff behind the till until 11am when security arrives.

She said: “There are a group of down and outs that hang around by the church along here and they will make their way around town stealing what they can. 

“With us, coffee, cheese, baby products and chocolate are big targets. These products are easy to sell."

Leeds has its own initiative called BACIL (Business against Crime In Leeds), which works in partnership with Leeds City Council, West Yorkshire Police, Safer Leeds and other bodies across the city to reduce crime. 

They have a radio operation to communicate and alert city-wide to other businesses and agencies on the network. 

But businesses have to pay to be included and as one retailer said: “I don’t see the benefit of radioing somebody to tell them I’ve just had a shoplifter in.”

Asif Latif, who owns and runs Legend Learthers in Thornton’s Arcade, Leeds, pays for membership and has a radio that keeps him informed on what’s going on.

He said: “It’s always going off. It’s like entertainment.”

Luckily for him, he doesn’t have a big problem with shoplifters.

He said: “ I don’t get shoplifters in because I’m old school. I deal with shoplifters myself and let them know they can’t steal from me.

“I’m from an era where I’ve grown up on market stalls and grafted and got up early to buy stock. Back then there were no cameras, you had to employ minders to keep watch. 

“By the time your business has grown you’ve hardened and you are not taking any grief. I’m not grafting all my life for someone to take it from me. 

“If anybody tries to come in my store who I suspect to be a thief I will stop them coming in, by telling them we’re not open or having a training day. I cut it dead."

“It really doesn’t surprise me that Leeds is the capital of shoplifting, the radio is going off all the time.

“Just recently Flannels was robbed in broad daylight with men with machetes, and Louis Vuitton has been targeted, and the likes of Poundland, Boots, River Island, Anne Summers and Foot Asylum are hit every day.”

Rising trend

Superintendent Dan Wood of Leeds District Police, said: “As a key UK retail destination with a large number of city centre retailers, Leeds did witness a post pandemic rise in shoplifting offences, as did many other urban centres, following the end of Covid.  

“Those increases have continued into 2023 and it is a trend police are very much alive to.

“We have not seen a notable increase in organised criminality or offences in which violence is used or threatened, but when such serious offences do take place, they are investigated as priority crimes by detectives. 

“Very serious but thankfully still isolated offences such as armed robbery or ram raids are also fully investigated by officers from Leeds CID. 

“Those involved in such offending face stiff sentences when brought before the courts, as demonstrated by the combined 15 year sentence given recently to two men jailed for armed robberies targeting convenience stores in the city.  “

A spokesperson for Leeds City Council said: “We take the issue of shoplifting extremely seriously and are working hard with partners to tackle this problem and all other types of crime in the city centre, while also providing assistance to affected people and businesses.

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“Through our involvement in the Safer Leeds multi-agency partnership, we are supporting a police-backed scheme called #DaySafeLeeds that is designed to target – via covert and overt on-street action – the city’s known shoplifters and those committing opportunistic offences.

“The scheme, which is led by the Business Against Crime In Leeds group, makes full use of the LeedsWatch CCTV surveillance system as well as on-the-ground intelligence and information that is gathered on a daily basis by liaison officers in the Safer Leeds Street Support team.”

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