As cases of credit-card fraud, petty theft and pickpocketing soar, police pin the problem on groups of mainland 'tourists' working for organised cross-border syndicates Hong Kong is in the grip of a street-crime explosion as police battle a surge in the number of mainland 'tourists' who visit the city to steal, often at the behest of cross-border crime syndicates, according to senior investigators. Lawmakers and frontline police fear that although the World Health Organisation has lifted its travel advisory on Hong Kong, tourists might be still be nervous about visiting the city because of a perception that they could fall victim to crime. The latest official figures, obtained by the Sunday Morning Post, reveal that in the first three months of this year, there were 430 pickpocketing cases reported to the police - almost three times as many as in the same period in 1998. In the first quarter of 1998, just four mainland residents were arrested for such crimes. This year, 23 mainland visitors were arrested between January and March. Police sources describe the official figures as the proverbial tip of the iceberg because many victims fail to report such crimes and large numbers of petty street thefts are filed under a miscellaneous category that masks the true figure. Police chiefs have underlined the severity of the situation by instituting a wider ranging review of crime statistics to come up with an accurate figure. Last week, Assistant Commissioner of Police Victor Lo Yik-kee met frontline commanders from every police division to stress the importance of keeping accurate and up-to-date records of crime. The surge in street crime has also led to fears that when Hong Kong and mainland officials press ahead with plans to ease travel restrictions on Guangdong residents, allowing them to travel to the special administrative region individually instead of as part of a tour group - the only way they can come at present - the problem could spiral out of control. Liberal Party legislator Howard Young, who represents the tourism sector, yesterday agreed street crime was becoming a concern and suggested a three-point criteria in screening travellers from the mainland when the entry restrictions are relaxed. 'I think we need to set three criteria. Individuals who want to visit Hong Kong from the mainland should have a job, have enough money and have a clean record from any previous visits to Hong Kong as part of a group. 'If they can't meet these three criteria, then they should not be allowed to come,' he said. Detectives estimate that when the number of pickpocketing, shoplifting, credit-card theft and street deception cases perpetrated by genuine mainland tourists on two-way permits each month is added up, the amount stolen could run into millions of dollars. Top officials are anxious to ensure that, with the Sars outbreak largely under control, the mainland tourist market is tapped efficiently. However, they are also keenly aware of the crime risk. Criminologist and associate professor Roderic Broadhurst of the University of Hong Kong's social sciences faculty said: 'They are caught in a bit of a bind because, on the one hand, they want to encourage mainland tourists to come to Hong Kong, but on the other, they have to cope with the rising number of such people carrying out crimes.' Investigators say the problem is not confined to the busy tourist areas alone. Police in districts across Hong Kong are reporting sharp rises in pickpocketing, shop-lifting and credit-card theft - and an accompanying rise in the number of arrests of two-way permit holders from the mainland. Frontline officers describe many of the so-called tourists as extremely well organised, often working for mainland crime gangs who buy tickets for 'tour groups' of criminals to travel here. 'We're not saying that every mainlander who comes here is a thief - far from it. But the problem is huge and needs to be addressed. What we have in some cases are busloads of genuine tourists who come here with the sole intention to clean up,' one senior detective said. 'In some cases, they are working as part of a mainland crime gang which buys their tour group tickets for them and knows they are going to get a return at a cost to innocent victims. In other cases, they operate alone.' A police spokesman said: 'The force is certainly concerned if mainland two-way permit holders are coming into Hong Kong with the express intention to carry out crimes. 'The force will maintain its pressure while closely liaising with other government departments and the mainland authorities to tackle such crimes.' The spokesman also attributed the rising crime rate to the economic downturn and pointed out that out of the millions of mainland visitors who came to Hong Kong last year, just 1,800 were involved in crime. He added: 'The crackdown on quick-cash crimes is one of the commissioner's operational targets for 2003. The force is cognisant of the fact that intelligence-led policing is vital and our inspection process has been looking at crime recording, trends and analysis.'