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    Targeting Timepieces: How OSINT Combats Luxury Watch Theft Rings and Enhances Executive Protection

    In the wake of Covid-19 lockdowns, the luxury watch market experienced an extraordinary boom. With a surge of consumers sitting at home and looking to acquire a timepiece, luxury watches evolved from expensive accessories to a legitimate asset class. Despite the increased demand, many brands faced production pressure or limited supply, so customer waiting lists grew alongside record prices at auction.

    Faced with a new set of market dynamics, watch buyers and collectors were no longer able to walk into a store and purchase their dream timepiece, so they turned to the pre-owned market. Here, sought-after brands and models were readily available—if someone was willing to pay a premium over the original retail price. This trend became so prevalent that it now represents a new normal. Today, a staggering 29% of buyers are willing to pay above retail for a pre-owned luxury watch, and 40% of these consumers disclose their primary motivation is to avoid long waiting lists.

    Not all is glittering in the world of luxury watches, however. The rising demand for pre-owned timepieces also caught the attention of opportunistic thieves. Recent reports touched on the allure of luxury watch theft, highlighting their small size, high value, and ease of concealment. Unlike the goods associated with other illicit activities, such as drugs, handling stolen luxury watches attracts less scrutiny from law enforcement and the public, making them an attractive target for criminals looking for quick cash.

    When it comes to preventing and investigating the theft of luxury watches, open-source intelligence (OSINT) can play a vital role in recovering stolen assets as well as bolstering executive protection of individuals who wear luxury timepieces.

    The Landscape of Luxury Watch Crime

    Watch theft has been on the rise in recent years. In 2022 alone, there were more than 6,109 reports of stolen watches in London, UK. In December of that same year, criminals snatched almost 600 watches, carrying an average value of £5,189. Headlines in other geographies have also featured daring heists, such as the brazen robbery of a Staten Island watch business on Memorial Day, where thieves walked away with a staggering haul of 150 watches worth $2.5 million.

    Aside from brick-and-mortar jewelry stores, luxury watch owners themselves have become targets, an alarming reality that executive protection teams must confront. Concerns have risen following violent street robberies in major cities like London and New York, often committed by individuals on mopeds or scooters. High-profile figures have fallen victim to these crimes, including former world boxing champion Amir Khan, who was robbed at gunpoint, losing his bespoke rose gold Franck Muller watch valued at $90,000.

    Similarly, F1 driver Charles Leclerc had his $330,000 Richard Mille watch snatched by two individuals donning motorcycle helmets, who initially approached him for a selfie. This wasn't the first time somebody targeted a Formula One driver. In 2020, Lando Norris fell victim to a violent robbery outside Wembley Stadium following the Euro 2020 final, losing his prized $180,000 Richard Mille watch.

    Given the prevalence of escalating luxury watch crime, it's essential for security professionals to gain insight into the methods employed by thieves in order to combat their nefarious schemes.

    Combating Social Media Exploitation by Thieves

    In traditional modern schemes, criminals lurk outside high-end establishments in affluent areas, waiting to spot luxury watch owners. Once a watch is spotted, the thief may either immediately rob the victim in the street or follow them home. Some criminals, however, have grown tired of waiting around on street corners. They now use social media to identify potential targets and their locations, exploiting the openness of affluent individuals online.

    Social media has become a goldmine of information, not just for investigators but also for bad actors. Perpetrators are increasingly relying on these digital platforms to track the movements of high-profile individuals known to possess valuable assets. Criminals can meticulously study potential victims’ posts to determine ideal moments for street robberies or to pinpoint vulnerable homes with unattended items. A notable case involved a UK gang dubbed the “Rolex Rippers,” who embarked on an 18-day crime spree across South London during the Christmas season of 2021 and early 2022—they used celebrities' social media pages to facilitate their stalking activities and were caught after two members were seen in online photos wearing some of the stolen watches.

    OSINT can be a crucial tool for executive protection teams in this challenging landscape. It empowers security professionals to conduct comprehensive threat assessments, ensuring the safety of those under their charge. Security teams must also actively promote caution among luxury watch owners and advise them to exercise restraint when sharing their location or images of their watches on social media. By doing so, they can significantly mitigate the risk of becoming targets for criminals and prevent any social media posts that may pose a risk to their clients.

    Tracking Stolen Watches on Online Marketplaces

    When luxury watches do fall into the hands of thieves, criminals’ primary objective is to convert them into cash as quickly as possible. One common avenue is to sell stolen timepieces on online marketplaces. Conventional online platforms like Facebook Marketplace and eBay serve as convenient channels for reaching a wide audience with minimal scrutiny. While specialist watch marketplaces like Chrono24 and Watchfinder check serial numbers against manufacturers' lost and stolen registers, it's important to note that not all victims manage to have their stolen watches added to these databases. Some sellers also deliberately encourage off-platform transactions to evade fees, giving them more freedom to sell stolen goods.

    Security teams and law enforcement professionals can use automated OSINT tools and techniques to search online marketplace platforms like eBay, Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, and specialized watch trading platforms to find listings that match stolen watches. Details like model, serial number, or unique features, can be used to confirm the watch in the listing is the stolen one, enabling the investigators to work with the right parties to recover the watch.

    Once a thief has been identified through online marketplaces, OSINT also provides an opportunity for investigators to analyze the digital footprints left behind by these individuals. By scouring social media profiles, online forums, and other publicly available information, OSINT analysts can gather crucial insights into the activities, connections, and behavior of criminals. This intelligence enables law enforcement to track down and apprehend the culprits, while also uncovering important leads that can aid in dismantling networks of thieves working together. Through this systematic analysis of digital footprints, OSINT supports the disruption and prosecution of organized watch theft networks.

    Automating OSINT for Executive Protection and Asset Recovery

    Integrating OSINT into executive protection and asset recovery strategies can significantly improve outcomes for law enforcement agencies and security professionals. At Skopenow, we empower our customers to more effectively and efficiently assess threats, mitigate risk, and conduct online investigations. Start unlocking the power of open-source intelligence with a free trial today: