Eleven mainland Chinese travellers were among 50 people arrested by police in connection with 106 reports of theft in Hong Kong, the force on Tuesday said.
Six of the 11 mainlanders are alleged members of a criminal syndicate and linked to 19 pickpocketing cases in the city, according to police.
Inspector Lam Kin-yu of the Wong Tai Sin criminal investigation unit said the six men held two-way permits – a mainland travel document used to enter Hong Kong – and they had entered the city for a few days before committing the crimes.
He said he believed the ringleader of the syndicate was on the mainland, with the six members assigned to come to the city as pickpockets.
“They usually work in a group of two or three people and commit the crimes in crowded areas. They then bring the stolen goods back to the mainland for distribution,” he said.
Between January and June this year, police handled 228 cases of pickpocketing, an increase of 212 per cent from 73 reports logged in the same period of last year.
One tactic employed by pickpockets involves working in pairs and following targets on the street, according to the force.
“One of them uses an open umbrella to block the sight of passers-by, while the other opens the victim’s backpack or shoulder bag and steals valuables from inside,” Inspector Lam Ying-pan of the Wong Tai Sin district intelligence unit said.
He said pickpockets also operated in areas such as markets and shopping centres as well as crowded MTR carriages, usually targeting housewives and the elderly.
He reminded the public to be cautious and safeguard personal belongings. “They should also stay alert to suspicious individuals, especially after withdrawing money from an automated teller machine, as pickpockets may follow and seize the opportunity to strike,” Lam warned.
Between June and August, police in Wong Tai Sin carried out an antitheft operation code-named “Darkvale”.
During the three-month mission, they arrested 42 men and eight women, solving 106 cases of thefts involving HK$1.5 million in cash and valuables. Eleven of the suspects were travellers from the mainland.
Their offences included pickpocketing, stealing in shops, theft from vehicles and miscellaneous theft as well as handling stolen properties.
Some of the cases occurred in public toilets, according to Lam.
As victims used toilets and left belongings unattended in a cubicle, he said thieves usually took the opportunity to use an apparatus with a fixed hook to steal items.
Police said the operation had successfully targeted theft syndicates and their core members, adding officers would continue to carry out such enforcement actions.
In Hong Kong, theft is punishable by up to 10 years in jail while handling stolen properties carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.