The British Embassy in Spain is warning holidaymakers to watch out for ruthless gangs of modern-day highway robbers who are preying on people driving foreign-registered vehicles and hire cars.
Police in the Catalonia region of Spain have dealt with 126 British victims of robbery on the AP7 motorway between the French border and the Valencia region over the past two years.
British Consulates across mainland Spain say they are receiving regular reports of roadside robbery occurring along the coast between Barcelona and Alicante, across Andalucia in the south, and in the Madrid region. Consular staff estimate that 1 in 20 of all emergency passports issued last year as a result of theft were following motorway robberies.
A new video produced by the Foreign Office – ‘Don’t let thieves drive you to distraction’ – shows real-life footage of some of the most common tactics. Highway robbers flag their victim down by indicating there is a problem with their vehicle, then one gets out to distract the occupants’ attention, whilst an unseen accomplice robs passports, money and other valuables before the gang makes a fast getaway.
In a second case, the robber tricks a victim into thinking they have a problem with their parked vehicle, whilst another opens the door and removes valuables. Other tricks include throwing something that creates a sudden noise, or puncturing a tyre at a roadside rest stop.
Will Middleton, consular regional director for Spain, warns:
‘Distraction is the most common technique used by highway robbers in Spain. They will try to worry you about the state of your vehicle, and then whilst they point out the supposed problem, an accomplice is robbing you.
‘So be wary of anyone attempting to stop you when you are driving, or trying to point out a problem or offering assistance. They may not be the good Samaritan they appear to be.
‘If someone points out a supposed problem whilst you are on the road, keep going until you reach a service area. If you have to stop, make sure one person stays in the vehicle. Keep valuables out of sight and out of reach. If you do notice a problem with your vehicle, call your emergency breakdown service for help.
‘We are working with the Spanish police to alert British visitors to how these gangs work, so that holidaymakers can avoid becoming victims. Police statistics1 indicate that these robberies are largely non-violent.
‘However falling victim to this kind of theft can be distressing and costly: a family of four who lose all their passports would unfortunately need to pay around four hundred pounds to get emergency passports to get home.’
Case study 1
In April, Richard Hibbs from Llandudno in North Wales, and his brother-in-law who lives in Spain, had just driven through the toll booths on the AP7 motorway north of Barcelona when another car drove up very close to them and they heard a loud noise. It sounded the same as when Mr Hibbs had been in a minor collision once before.
A youngster leant out of the window of the car and started shouting and gesticulating towards their vehicle, motioning them to stop. Alarmed, they pulled over and both got out.
One of the occupants emerged from the other vehicle and held their attention by talking loudly in Spanish and pointing at their rear tyres. Then he suddenly broke off mid-sentence, ran back to his vehicle and dived in through the rear window as the car sped away.
Whilst they were being distracted, another member of the gang had sneaked into the car and stolen a leather travel wallet containing two passports and other documents from the glove-box, and two coats from the back seat. The whole incident lasted less than two minutes.
Mr Hibbs says: ‘Fortunately we didn’t have any cash or cards in the wallet and there were no weapons involved, although we’re still not sure how they made the noise. My insurance covered the cost of replacing the passports.
‘I’d say to anyone travelling in a vehicle with UK plates to think at least twice before stopping on a Spanish motorway in similar circumstances, particularly at night, and don’t keep all your valuables in the same place. If you do have to stop, don’t all get out of the car.’
Case study 2
Mr and Mrs J from Lewes in Sussex were on the AP7 north of Barcelona when a car overtook their British-registered Transit van and a young girl leant out of the back window shouting and indicating that there was a problem with the bikes on the back of their van.
Unsuspecting, they pulled over and the passenger in the other car took them round to the other side of their van. Mrs J realised something was wrong when the ‘good Samaritan’ started pointing underneath the vehicle, but it was already too late.
An accomplice had grabbed their passports and valuables, dived back into the moving car and the robbers made their getaway. Mr J warns: ‘It all happened so quickly… my advice is to avoid stopping on the motorway for whatever reason.’
Top tips to avoid highway robbers ruining your holiday:
On the road
- Be wary of people flagging you down
- If you have a problem with your vehicle, call your emergency breakdown service
- Keep valuables out of sight and out of reach
When you stop
- Park your vehicle in sight
- Take your valuables with you
- Watch out for tampering