Travel Security in London

October 15, 2018

NGS operator Dylan Gwinn, a former Metropolitan police officer, looks at the threats facing travellers to London, and how they can best be managed and mitigated.


In the first nine months of 2017, there were over 30 million foreign visitors to London. With large increases in tourist numbers from both Asia and Europe, it is likely that high visitor numbers will continue. Despite concerns over Brexit, London is still considered one of the world’s top financial centres and is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Despite this global popularity, between 2017 and 2018 the borough of Westminster had the highest levels of theft snatches and robberies out of all 32 London boroughs, with over 9200 theft snatch offences and over 2300 robberies of personal property. Whilst these statistics are concerning, they certainly do not mean that business travellers or tourists should not visit Westminster or Central London. Travellers visiting London should accept that there is a risk they could become victims of crime. However, by being situationally aware, and by taking basic security and safety precautions, the risk of being a victim can be greatly reduced.

How criminals target their victims

Criminals usually select targets who appear vulnerable. These will include those who are heavily intoxicated, disorientated tourists, individuals talking on their mobile phone, or simply someone walking alone down an empty street late at night. To avoid becoming a potential target, people walking through London should seek to reduce their vulnerability and therefore reduce the likelihood of becoming a victim of crime. Good situational awareness is the key to this.

Situational awareness

Anyone who drives a motor vehicle should be continually assessing what is going on around them by looking ahead, to the sides of the road and behind them through their mirrors. The purpose of this is to look for potential threats and to ensure that if one is identified they can take the appropriate action and prevent an incident from happening. This is the most basic concept of situational awareness. However, when it comes to walking around a city, these skills are often not transferred over and used. To have good situational awareness, an individual must take advantage of their senses such as sight and hearing: these are just two of the basic survival mechanisms that alert a traveller to danger.

Sight is important as it allows assessment of a person’s body language and behaviour. Looking at how someone is moving, their demeanour and what they are doing with their hands can provide important information as to whether or not they pose a threat. Having investigated numerous robberies in my police career, a common factor is that a criminal will attempt to obscure their face by using a hoodie, a face mask or a motorbike helmet, a tactic that helps a criminal in two ways. Firstly, when a criminal approaches with their face obscured, this can cause fear or anxiety for the selected target, as simply being able to see someone’s face can provide clues to their intentions and may allay any immediate concerns. When a criminal obscures their face, the opportunity to assess their potential motive is denied. Secondly, if a victim of crime is unable to identify an offender, it becomes very difficult to obtain evidence for a prosecution.

Hearing is an equally important factor, as criminals often approach potential victims and engage them in conversation by, for instance, asking them for the time. This inevitably makes the person stop, thus lowering their defences and letting the criminal know they have gained an element of trust from an initial interaction. When the potential victim shows the individual their watch, they are showing the criminal what they have to offer, usually increasing the chances of becoming a victim. Criminals in London have been known to target individuals wearing expensive watches: in one case, a victim was stabbed to death over his Rolex watch whilst being robbed.

Saying ‘No’ and carrying on walking can be an effective deterrent. Whilst this may appear rude, the individual’s response will give a good indication as to the level of threat posed. If the individual disengages and walks away or even responds rudely, that is a good sign. However, when they do not take ‘no’ for an answer, potential victims should raise their situational awareness levels and be aware that this person poses a potential risk.

By having good situational awareness and practising good observation skills, travellers in the city can monitor their surroundings and take appropriate action to reduce the likelihood of becoming a victim of crime. Individuals who are clearly observing others demonstrate to potential aggressors that they are aware of their surroundings, which may dissuade those individuals from targeting them in the first place.

Common crimes in London

By having good situational awareness and practising good observation skills, travellers in the city can monitor their surroundings and take appropriate action to reduce the likelihood of becoming a victim of crime. Individuals who are clearly observing others demonstrate to potential aggressors that they are aware of their surroundings, which may dissuade those individuals from targeting them in the first place.

Millions of people travel to Central London every year and have a safe and trouble-free visit: however, like any city in the world, it has problems with crime. The following is a selection of crimes that are common, and that can be mitigated by having good situational awareness and practising good observation skills.

Robberies According to the Metropolitan Police Service, there were over 30,000 personal robbery offences in 2017, a rise of approximately 36% from the previous year. Westminster and Camden were ranked highest out of all London boroughs and both surpassed 2,000 personal robberies. Both boroughs, particularly the neighbourhoods of the West End, Holborn and Bloomsbury are considered some of the worst areas for moped crime, including robberies.

In many of these cases, the individuals committing the robberies will attempt to obscure their faces in some way, with either a mask, a helmet or a hooded top, with the notion that they will not be identified by the victim or the police during the subsequent investigation. Highgate Hill is one of the worst streets in London for these types of crimes, with offenders often difficult to identify afterwards. This reinforces the importance of good situational awareness. Whilst many law-abiding citizens will wear hooded tops or helmets, a minority will wear them for criminal purposes and a well-prepared traveller will employ their situational awareness to look for potential risks.

Pickpocketing gangs do operate in Central London, some of the most popular areas including Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Street, Leicester Square, Covent Garden, Charing Cross Road and in and around Soho. To reduce the likelihood of becoming a victim, travellers should ensure that their possessions are always secure. They should try to blend into the environment and be aware of their surroundings, particularly at night. If approached by someone suspicious, they should say ‘No’ politely but firmly, and then carry on walking. If individuals do not take ‘no’ for an answer, this may suggest that they have an ulterior motive: in these circumstances, travellers should consider their options and look for a bar, restaurant or café and report the issue to staff or security, or call 999 (or 112) and ask for the police.

Distraction thefts are common in and around Central London, specifically around cafés, bars and restaurants in the West End. Members of the public routinely sit outside these establishments with their mobile phones on the table, along with other items of property. An offender will usually engage a victim in conversation, then place a map or a newspaper down over a phone whilst asking a question or looking for directions. They will then take the phone from underneath the map or newspaper and walk away. Mobile phones are one of the most popular items to steal: they can be hidden once they have been taken, they hold significant value and there is a massive market for them.

To minimise the risk of being a victim of this kind of crime, travellers must be aware of their surroundings, and ensure that all property (including mobile phones) is secured. Travellers who are approached by someone whilst sitting down should remain alert, should say ‘no’ politely, and should disengage from any kind of conversation with them.

Those with any further concerns should report the incident to members of staff within the establishment, or should call the police on 999 or 112 (which can be dialled from a mobile phone anywhere in Europe).

Theft Snatches There were over 9,000 theft snatches offences in Westminster alone between 2017 and 2018. There are a variety of ways theft snatches are carried out, but in recent years mopeds have become significantly more common. According to the BBC News, the West End is one of the five worst areas in London for this kind of crime. The tendency for modern travellers carrying handbags to be distracted by their mobile phones is a reflection on the importance of having good situational awareness and keeping personal property secure and out of sight. If travellers see a moped riding on the pavement, it is a good indication of their intent, so they should consider their options and look for safe areas and potential escape routes. Moped gangs operate during the day and night, and have proven problematic for the police to manage.

Illegal Taxi Touts At least 300 sexual assaults by taxi or private hire drivers are reported every year in London, and that number is increasing sharply. In July 2016, a young woman was collected from a nightclub and driven back to Wembley during the early hours of the morning. However, she was unaware that the driver was not licenced or registered as a taxi driver. During the journey, police stopped the vehicle for an unrelated matter. This resulted in her shouting from the front passenger seat, asking them to help her get out of the vehicle, as she felt uncomfortable and had been driven around for a period of time not knowing what was going to happen to her. The driver was subsequently arrested, before the female’s boyfriend came to collect her and take her home.

Whilst the female in this case managed to get home safely, others may not, and they should never get into an illegal taxi under any circumstances. It is quite common for illegal taxis to congregate around late-night venues in central London and target lone females with the intention of carrying out a sexual assault. Unfortunately, individuals leaving late-night venues will most likely be intoxicated and therefore vulnerable to criminals. Sexual assaults are not the only criminal offences that can be committed whilst taking an illegal taxi, it has been known for customers to be taken to secluded areas and robbed.

There are some basic steps that can be taken to avoid getting into an illegal taxi. All black taxis can be signalled from the street. These taxis will have a white licence plate on the boot and one inside the vehicle. A minicab must be pre-booked, they cannot be hailed from the street like black taxis can. Transport for London issues advice ( and contact information in relation to booking mini cabs and how to stay safe whilst travelling in London by taxis.


Unfortunately, like any capital in the world, there will always be criminality and perpetrators will often target tourists or business travellers because they are unfamiliar with their environment and inevitably more vulnerable. Most people visiting London have an enjoyable, trouble-free trip and return home safely; but this article has highlighted some of the most common criminal offences that may occur whilst staying in London, and the importance of having good situational awareness and knowledge of these type of offences to reduce the likelihood of becoming a victim of crime.

Author: Dylan Gwinn, NGS operator for medical, security and aviation

Dylan has over 13 years of law enforcement experience. He has carried out several roles including firearms, investigations and response policing. He served in the Metropolitan Police Service for six years as a police officer, during which time he was stationed in one of London’s most violent boroughs with high levels of gang and gun crime. He has carried out proactive and reactive patrols in London’s West End, targeting drug dealers, robbers and pickpocketing gangs.