Police are warning shoppers to be extra vigilant after a series of distraction thefts at a number of supermarkets across Exeter and East Devon.
Officers said there had been ‘numerous instances’ in the last few months of people – mainly pensioners – having PIN numbers stolen by someone looking over their shoulders as they pay then being distracted in the car park while their purse or wallet is stolen.
In each case the thieves have quickly used the stolen cards to make swift purchases, sometimes amounting to several thousands of pounds.
Police want to raise awareness of the tactics used by the men and women, which includes distracting a shopper in the car park while an accomplice carries out the theft.
The distraction thefts have been carried out at supermarkets in Sidmouth, Seaton and Exeter.
Police Constable Kat Henton, said: “It’s clear that a gang of up to three men and a female are freely targeting elderly people with little or no concern of being caught on camera.
“Both elderly men and women are being targeted and reports are becoming more prevalent.
“The group members have been described to us as being of Eastern European ethnicity and often the male party is described as having a ‘foreign’ accent.
“These thefts revolve around people being targeted at supermarkets for their bank cards.
“Shoppers are unwittingly being observed when paying for goods at the checkout.
“Accomplices in the supermarket car park are then approaching the individuals, and while one distracts them – either asking for directions or engaging them in general conversation – the other offender sneaks in to the car and steals their bag or purse, or pickpockets them.
“We have found that the cards are used almost immediately to purchase high value items using the PIN, or to withdraw cash.
“We are encouraging people to make sure that their PIN numbers are well hidden when inputting them at the checkout, and that personal belongings, including wallets and purses, are kept safe and not left unattended at any time.”
Police are investigating at least six recent incidents at supermarket car parks in Exeter and East Devon, including one on Thursday, February 6 in the Tesco Exe Vale car park, in Russell Way, Exeter
An 88-year-old woman was approached by a man and a woman at her car and her purse was stolen. Purchases totaling more than £2,500 was subsequently made.
On Friday, January 31 in the car park of Waitrose, Heavitree, Exeter, an 87-year-old man was approached by a woman who started making conversation while another man stole his bank cards from his wallet.
The thieves went on to make purchases from various shops in Exeter city centre totalling almost £5,000.
Similar incidents have occurred at Tesco in Seaton, Sainsbury’s in Pinhoe, Exeter, and Waitrose in Sidmouth, said police.
If you have information to help police enquiries, or if you have been a victim of theft, call police on 101 quoting CR/008855/20.