When farmer Ed Lovejoy rounded up his sheep last month he was left “stunned” and feeling “rather sick”.
A total of 116 ewes had gone missing from his flock of 460, and the missing cattle were worth £17,000.
Initially suspecting the animals might have escaped, Mr Lovejoy went looking near his farm in Woodchurch, Kent, but there was no trace of them.
It wasn’t until a witness reported seeing someone on a quad pushing the sheep to the side of a field that reality dawned on the 40-year-old farmer.
Brazen thieves had staged a daring raid to steal the animals, which are now feared to have been slaughtered and their meat sold on the black market.
It comes amid warnings that Britain is facing a ‘potential crime crisis’ linked to the soaring Cost of life.
Electricity theft, shoplifting, insurance fraud and rural crime are said to be on the rise as the cost of food and energy increases.
Fraudsters are “weaponizing” the situation with a series of scams, according to a charity, and organized crime groups are believed to be viewing the crisis as a recruitment opportunity.
In the campaign, insurance company NFU Mutual warned of an increase in thefts and said livestock worth £2.4million were stolen last year and animals from an additional £1.4m worth had been captured in the first eight months of this year.
Mr Lovejoy said the theft of his Romney sheep, a Kent breed, would have a ‘ripple effect’ on his business for two to three years.
He suspects the animals were taken to a “dodgy slaughterhouse” or killed and the meat sold by the criminals themselves.
“There are years and years of breeding in these sheep and you look after them all year round,” Mr Lovejoy told Sky News.
“Somebody taking them and stealing them makes you pretty sick.
“I think they probably would have slaughtered them and put them in the food chain somehow.”
Fear cattle rustlers cannot be arrested
Mr Lovejoy said he reported the theft to the police, but the culprits were not found.
He now fears that the criminals will come back and try to steal more.
“How do you secure 700 acres to stop people going up there to steal sheep? I’m not sure that’s possible,” he said.
“It is a fear that they take more.
“If food gets really expensive, there’s always a black market.
“If the cost of living crisis gets worse, there’s a chance we’ll see more and more cattle rustling.”
Increase in violent crime predicted
A criminologist says the UK is facing a ‘potential crime crisis’ linked to the cost of living, including an increase in street violence.
Dr Robert Hesketh, of Liverpool John Moores University, told Sky News: “As the cost of living crisis begins to peak, I think there will be an increase (in crime) – I think it’s obvious.
“In areas like mine – marginalized areas, areas of social exclusion – it’s going to skyrocket, especially among young people.
“I once overheard the family of a youngster saying, ‘Look, we’re going to pay your Sky bills, let your boy do some deliveries for us.
“You’ll get members of organized crime groups to monopolize this because they know people are going to need the money.
“There has already been an increase in electricity theft – that’s up 13% (in 2021-22 from the previous year).
“In communities like mine, it only takes one to get by and there are [people] saying, ‘Go ahead’.”
“The police will have to prioritize”
Dr Hesketh said organized crime groups see the cost of living crisis as “an opportunity to get more manpower, more people involved in street crime and drug dealing, and the responsible keep their hands clean”.
“With the organized crime groups around my area, it’s very territorial,” he added.
“As people get desperate and organized criminals get more greedy, they’ll start invading other people’s territory…it obviously gets violent.
“Violence is an integral part of organized crime…it’s how they thrive. Without violence, they’re nothing.”
Dr Hesketh said he thought the police “should prioritize”.
“Resources are limited as they are, they are going to focus mainly on more serious acts of violence, I think,” he added.
Victims targeted “left, right and center”
Victim Support said they saw people being targeted by government housing tax refund scams and an increase in the number of people trying to get “quick loans” through unregulated services.
Lisa Mills, the charity’s chief fraud officer, told Sky News: “People are in this hot state – they’re worried about the cost of living – so they’re taking more risks than they’re letting go. would normally do.
“This scenario will now be weaponized by fraudsters. We have seen it with the pandemic.
“When people feel anxious and uncertain, their ability to rationalize and think things through is going to be compromised.
“What we’ve seen is people in desperate need of money taking unnecessary risks by taking out loans online.
“We know people are going to be targeted left, right and center.”
Criminals are exploiting the cost of living crisis with scam energy rebate emails
Criminals are taking advantage of the energy crisis by offering fake discounts to try to trick victims into giving up their bank details.
Over a fortnight in September, police received nearly 1,600 reports of suspicious emails containing links to malicious websites designed to steal personal and financial information.
The scam emails claim to be from energy regulator Ofgem and are headlined ‘Claim your bill refund now’, telling recipients they owe payment under a government scheme to help people cope rising gas and electricity costs.
Chief Detective Inspector Hayley King of the City of London Police said: ‘It is shameful that in times of financial hardship criminals target members of the public claiming they are entitled to discounts and refunds.”
“If an email is genuine, the company will never pressure you to hand over your contact information. Always take a moment to determine if the request you received is genuine.”
Ms Mills warned of an increase in ‘money muling’ – when a criminal persuades someone to put ‘dirty’ money into their account before the funds are then transferred to another account.
“It’s actually money laundering – it’s washing dirty money,” she said.
“We have seen cases where young people have been promised free coaches if they accept money and then continue.
“Your guard is down in this time of crisis and people will be gasping for air thinking ‘I need a quick fix now’, and this is being offered to me and it sounds great.”
Ms Mills said some unregulated loans may charge high interest rates or the loan may not even exist.
She said: “As soon as they pay money, a website is taken down, you’ve lost your money – so the loan didn’t exist in the first place.
“He captures people that way.”
Teens make money for families by joining gangs
Police watchdog suggests officers may overlook some shoplifting
The National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) said the force had considered the impact of the cost of living crisis, but denied reports it was preparing for a ‘tidal wave’ violent crime and public disorder.
An NPCC spokesperson said: “Our current priority remains prevention, and we continually work with communities to gather intelligence on crime and disorder.
“As a result, police are able to routinely intervene early to prevent incidents or their escalation through this community intelligence to keep the public safe.”