Hong Kong police

As smash-and-grab robberies on luxury shops continue, has Hong Kong let its guard down?

Recent losses totalling HK$70 million leave chains scrambling to step up protection and fuel worries that the city has grown complacent about safety

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 April, 2018, 3:00pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 April, 2018, 11:30pm

A major Hong Kong jewellery chain has strengthened security at its stores in the wake of a recent spate of smash-and-grab robberies across the city.

Chow Sang Sang has reconfigured its alarm systems at “shops in several districts that need extra attention”, so they sound loudly to scare off intruders instead of silently alerting police.

Six raids in the last year involving the loss of valuables worth a total of HK$70 million (US$8.92 million) have also prompted two local jewellery industry associations to issue security warnings and advice to their members.

Lau Hak-bun, chairman of the Kowloon Pearls, Precious Stones, Jade, Gold and Silver Ornament Merchants Association, and vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Jewellers’ and Goldsmiths’ Association, said he had issued a letter urging shop owners not to put so many valuables in display windows. 

“It is so the shop looks less tempting. We can always bring our guests to VIP rooms if necessary,” he said.

“Also, members should not cluster all their jewellery pieces in one display window, but scatter them around. This means thieves will have more windows to smash, and the longer they stay, the higher the risk they face.”

He said the two associations often reviewed security measures and were in close contact with police.

Lau, who is also director of sales operations for Chow Sang Sang, said security had been upgraded at its stores after three masked robbers smashed the display window of the Tsim Sha Tsui branch in September, making off with HK$24 million worth of goods. The thieves fled on a motorbike before police arrived.

Lau said the stores had silent alarms linked to local police stations that notified officers without making any sound.

“But the shops have upgraded the alarms in the wake of these incidents, and the equipment will now ring immediately to scare off criminals,” Lau said.

In the past two months alone, smash-and-grab robbers have bagged more than HK$4.1 million worth of valuables from three jewellery, gold and watch shops in the city. 

Most recently three Colombian men took off with HK$40 million worth of jewellery in just 60 seconds by smashing display windows with a hammer at a shop in Central on Monday. The trio were arrested the same day.

Security consultant and former police superintendent Clement Lai Ka-chi warned there would be more raids, as the city had become complacent.

He urged police to enhance patrols to deter robberies, and luxury stores to step up security installations, including the use of anti-shatter glass for windows.

“Raiding a store in the heart of the city in broad daylight is such a slap in the police’s face,” Lai said, referring to Monday’s theft.

Raiding a store in the heart of the city in broad daylight is such a slap in the police’s face
Clement Lai

During his time on the force Lai helped form its elite Counter Terrorism Response Unit.

“The city, including members of the public, is not vigilant to the potential danger, as people nowadays are so used to a safe and peaceful environment,” he said. “They think old-fashioned robberies won’t happen in the era of sophisticated cybercrime. This has given culprits a chance.”

Police patrols are markedly relaxed compared with two decades ago, when armed robberies were an everyday occurrence, Lai said. Officers on the beat used to be very familiar with their districts and patrolled frequently, but do not any more, he added.

The security veteran said he expected more stores to fall victim to thieves, especially in the crowded shopping districts of Central, Tsim Sha Tsui, Sham Shui Po and Yuen Long. This is in part because these areas are hubs for non-ethnic Chinese residents and visitors, whom criminals are increasingly recruiting for robberies, he said.

“Some triads have hired non-ethnic Chinese to engage in robberies and other misdeeds,” Lai said, adding that such perpetrators could easily mix in with the crowds after committing an offence in these neighbourhoods.

“All crimes have a cycle. If criminals are going back to basics, then so should police. Street patrols are a basic police duty,” Lai said. “The force should think like a criminal.”

Also in March, a gang smashed the display window of a goldsmith’s shop in Sheung Shui and made off with HK$100,000 worth of ornaments.

A month prior, three robbers used a hammer to smash a shop window in Yuen Long and steal more than HK$1 million in watches during a raid that took less than 20 seconds.

A police insider who spoke to the Post shared Lai’s security concerns, and said the spate of old-fashioned hold-ups had prompted officers to step up patrols and discuss with shop owners additional security features.

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“The force’s Crime Prevention Bureau discusses security measures with the jewellery shop owner after a hold-up. They might suggest features to make display windows harder to break, or installing an additional layer of reinforced glass,” the source said.

A police spokesman said the force would inspect anti-robbery measures at high-risk locations and offer relevant security and crime prevention advice.

However, the force insider questioned whether such measures would deter robbers, whom he said had become “smarter” and “bolder” over the years.

“Their raids and escape routes are calculated. Their actions are fast,” the source said. “They do not worry about security alarms because their raids usually take no more than 30 seconds, and they flee before police arrive.”