Gangs use decoy shoplifters to raid stores in Lincoln
Professional crime gangs are sending decoy shoplifters into city stores while they go in undetected to raid stock.
Police and security staff say the organised gangs are one of the main reasons for a 27 per cent increase in shop thefts.
Their tactics see one team of thieves sent in to distract staff so the next can swoop in and raid shelves unchallenged.
And as shops face thousands of pounds in losses, businesses are being forced to push up prices at the tills, while security guards are at risk of serious violence if they give chase.
Groups of "career criminals" are also travelling into the city from across the country and fleeing with stolen goods. The gangs use tactics such as jumping in and out of different cars and changing their clothes to avoid capture.
The Echo understands big high street names such as Primark and New Look are among the worst hit, but the stores were unable to comment.
Figures from Lincolnshire Police show that there have been 580 reports of thefts in the city centre already this year – up from 456 in the same time period for last year.
Inspector Mark Garthwaite, who heads up the city centre neighbourhood policing team, said the gangs see Lincoln as a "soft target" because it is not as big as other cities.
He added: "I'm not denying we do have a high level of shop theft in Lincoln, but we do also have a high level of shops.
"We do get these gangs in and we do arrest a fair number of people from outside Lincoln, but the good thing is we're arresting them, which shows that we're not soft.
"We also have individuals who know nothing else other than stealing from shops and we have a big problem with repeat offenders.
"What we do advocate is stores trying to stop shop theft before it actually happens.
"But the problem is many stores' national policy means a thief has to walk out with a stolen item before they actually do something about it."
However, Paul Hencke, partner at Yak clothing store in High Street, acknowledged a growing problem.
He said: "It's a problem that's definitely getting worse. If they're good at it, they come in groups of four or five at separate times to make it look like they're not together.
"And when they leave stores with stolen goods they'll hand them off further down the street so when you do catch them and search them, they don't have anything on them."
Rob McGuire, manager of Gere Menswear, in High Street, added: "When people are skint, that's when you get your organised gangs in and they're stealing to order."
One security guard in the city, who wished to remain anonymous, said shoplifters were becoming more violent when they were caught.
He said: "More shoplifters have been carrying weapons when we've searched them. We know the pressure the police are under but crime is increasing and there is no reaction to it."
In its 2011 annual report, Lincoln Business Improvement Group revealed there were more than 400 known shoplifters working in the city.
Mick Lake, operations manager for Lincoln BIG, said shops then recouped their losses by increasing prices.