The Alarming Rise in Watch Thefts and How To Protect Yourself -

The Alarming Rise in Watch Thefts and How To Protect Yourself

Watch collecting has exploded in popularity over the last few decades, bringing with it a myriad of positives. The technology behind these timepieces has gone through some paradigm shifting developments, incredible independent brands have popped up out of nowhere and flourished, consumers have had more access to information than ever before thanks to abundant online communities and social media, and the industry itself has rarely been more profitable than it is today.

Sadly however, it is a number of these upsides which have given rise to an ever-growing scourge of modern times—a massive increase in watch thefts.

This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

If I was a thief (I’m not, by the way) I can’t really think of a better target for my sticky fingers than a high-end luxury watch.

For a start, they are extremely valuable and tend to only become more so. They’re small, therefore easy to transport, and they’re relatively straightforward to steal if you know how. They are also incredibly simple to sell on, so long as you do it quickly before anyone has the chance to circulate the serial number. And unlike, say, a suitcase full of heroin, being caught by the police with a watch is not a criminal offence. 

What’s more, there is so much data out there in the ether, I know exactly which pieces I would want to pinch to generate the best return and, thanks to Instagram and other platforms timestamping and geo-tagging pictures of owners flaunting their watches, I know precisely where and when I need to go to find them.

Apparently, real thieves have worked all that out too. In 2022, 6,815 watches were reported stolen, a 60% increase on the year before, while last year there was another spike of 106%. In total, the biggest global database of lost or stolen timepieces, The Watch Register, lists more than 80,000 models totaling over $1.3bn.

It will come as no surprise considering the demand that the biggest demographic in all this is Rolex. About 44%, or some $550m worth of the watches on the database come from the crown, with the Daytona, GMT-Master II and, weirdly, the Oyster Perpetual being the most frequently targeted. Omega are the next most populous brand with 7% and then Breitling, for some reason, just behind at 6%.

What might surprise you (it did me, anyway) was that by far the most thefts worldwide—some 47%, in fact—were reported in England. The U.S. tied with Germany for second place, at 9% each.

How Do I Keep My Watches On My Wrist?

There are a number of different ways unlucky owners have been separated from their watches recently. Below we take a look at some of the most prevalent and talk about how you can avoid falling victim.

The Drive-By

Even though the vast majority of watch thefts appear to be occurring in good old London town, it ain’t the Artful Dodger and his band of pintsized but lovable urchins doing the robbing. Instead, think machete-wielding gangsters with little respect for your health and general wellbeing.

In just two months at the beginning of 2022, thieves on mopeds and e-bikes struck an incredible 109 times in the British capital, threatening wearers with vicious bladed weapons in broad daylight and stealing watches straight off their wrists as they walked down the street.

And it isn’t just confined to pedestrians. There have been many reports of car drivers waiting at lights suffering the same fate, with the thief either reaching in through an open window or else smashing through the glass to get to them, before making their escape by weaving through the traffic on motorbikes.

With this kind of violent crime, there really isn’t anything you can do to prevent it. Fighting back is one option we cannot advise against strongly enough. As precious as they might be, at the end of the day they’re only watches and not worth injury or perhaps worse.

The only course of action is a preventative one. If you’re going to a city or any other area known to have a problem with this type of crime, give serious consideration to leaving your best watch at home.

If you can’t bear being parted, be discreet. Keep your watch tucked away under a shirtsleeve while out in the open and, no matter where you might be, never talk about how expensive your watch is. Firstly, that’s kinda tacky anyway, but also, you never know who’s listening. 

In addition, always be aware of your surroundings and keep an eye out for shady-looking characters—particularly when using ATMs. In restaurants or bars, sit facing the entrance so you can see who’s coming in and if driving, try and leave at least a full car length between you and the vehicle in front when waiting at traffic lights in case you need to make some kind of defensive maneuver.

Beware of Strangers

I was lucky enough to travel fairly extensively in my younger days, so this one pains me a little, having relied on the assistance and good-nature of strangers in foreign lands on many occasions.

However, be very vigilant if you are approached at random while on holiday or working in a different country. Those friendly folk suddenly offering help for no reason, or maybe asking for a light for their cigarette or anything else which will bring them into your personal space, are not necessarily on the up-and-up. Especially if there are two of them, with one providing the distraction while the other relieves you of the ability to tell the time. 

And it doesn’t have to be abroad either. Here in the U.K., the notorious ‘Rolex Rippers’ were a gang of young women from Eastern Europe acting as charity workers who targeted wealthy older men under the pretense of carrying out surveys. A little flirtatious physical contact was usually the only misdirection they needed to send the old boys home from the golf club Rolex-less and with some explaining to do. 

This is where your choice of bracelet comes into play. Ask any sleight-of-hand expert the type of watch they most like to lift and all will say the ones on leather straps with a buckle. Nimble fingers make short work of those and you wouldn’t notice until they were long gone. Metal bracelets, especially with something like Rolex’s Oysterclasp securing it, would be enough for a pro to think twice.

Err…Speaking of Pros!

You might remember reading stories of some hardworking ladies who, while doubtless paid generously for their conversation and companionship, also helped themselves to gratuities in the shape of some incredibly valuable watches.

One such tale from 2015 involved a New York watch dealer losing a limited-edition Greubel Forsey Double Tourbillon 30-degree Technique to two entrepreneurial spirits in a Midtown hotel. While the dealer and one of the women were in the bedroom presumably discussing favorite Bible verses, the other lifted the watch, along with $6,000 in cash from the safe where the unlucky owner had stored them—but not locked the door! (I don’t want to say I’m on the hookers’ side on this one, but…)

Another high profile case occurred in 2021 when an unnamed gentleman became the former owner of a $37,000 Audemars Piguet Royal Oak having invited a young lady—who he was shocked to later discover was a prostitute—back to his room in Las Vegas, of all places! The enterprising businesswoman allegedly struck again sometime later and added a Rolex Daytona to her collection.

So, how do you avoid this one? Well, the first way seems obvious, but failing that, the second is to use the hotel’s safe to store your expensive belongings. By that, I don’t actually mean the one in the room. Each room safe has a default code which will open it regardless of the code you’ve entered yourself, and just about every member of staff knows it. Instead, talk to the manager and try to arrange keeping your watch or watches in the hotel’s own vault. 

Other than that, be careful who you’re taking back and, crucially, keep an eye on your drink. Some victims have been drugged by their short-term guests and woken up significantly poorer.

Cool it With the ‘Gram

We get it; Social media offers a great platform for many things, the odd humble brag being among them. However, use it wrong and it can also be like handing out an invitation to criminals with the heading, ‘Please Come and Rob Me’.

Social media sites like Instagram and TikTok are not only superb resources for information about watches for legitimate enthusiasts, they are also places where the rich and/or famous go to display their VIP lifestyle; posing in the most exclusive clubs wearing their most expensive possessions. 

Posting in real time, with your high-priced watch front and center and tagging the establishment you happen to be frequenting, can bring undesirable attention to the door; or rather, to the street outside. 

If you must let everyone know where you are, it is best to let them know where you’ve just been, i.e. post that update only after you’ve left. 

As one example, and just to prove how brazen the average professional watch thief is, British boxer Amir Khan, the former light-welterweight world champion and a chap who knows how to handle himself, was robbed of his diamond-drenched Franck Muller on an East London street by two men in 2022. Not to victim-blame, but Khan had made a habit of parading his valuable watches across social media for a few years, a move which might well have brought him to the attention of organized crime gangs who were just waiting for an opportunity to move in. When, on the day of the Muller robbery, Khan had taken a picture with a fan while clearly wearing the watch, it was apparently the only motivation the muggers needed to start the hunt. Still, taking on a world champion boxer is pretty ballsy.

Safely Home 

Just to continue the frightfest, not all watches are stolen while the owner is out and about. It is important to think about home security too.

For a start, every piece you own should be insured and the appraisals kept current. Market prices, especially for preowned and vintage watches, fluctuate all the time and you should make sure the value you have set on your watch matches the actual real cost of a replacement. 

As for home protection itself, a comprehensive alarm system is essential, with glass break sensors on every window, not just those on the ground floor.  

After that, a high security safe will offer reasonable piece of mind. In this case, high security means one that weighs more than 750lbs and with a rating of TRTL 30×6. That means it is built to withstand at least 30-minutes of a grizzled safebreaker hacking away at it. 

And lastly, always keep pictures of all your watches and copies of their serial numbers should the worst happen and you need to file a police report.

There’s no doubt the sharp rise in watch thefts is alarming. It is an attractive crime, both for opportunistic thieves now that fewer and fewer of us are carrying cash, and the professionals as well. The latter are becoming ever more educated about brands and models, about which ones to target and how to dispose of them. The days when a stolen watch would make it only as far as the nearest pawn shop are long gone and instead, a sophisticated black market smuggles them out of the country, most likely to Dubai, Southeast Asia and Russia, where wealthy buyers don’t do waitlists but do have plenty of cash and officials look the other way. 

However, with a few common sense precautions, there’s no reason to believe you’ll fall victim to these n’er-do-wells. Don’t take unnecessary risks with your watches and you can continue to enjoy them for a lifetime.

Featured Photo: Pixabay Archive (CC).

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