A new type of crime is growing in Spain, and Brits are the prime targets. The criminals have been called the new highway robbers, as they work by getting British drivers to stop and get out of their cars, so they can steal belongings from their car.
So how are they doing it, and how can you protect yourself?
The warningThe British embassy in Spain issued a warning to British tourists. It says the hotspot for this kind of crime is the AP7 stretch of motorway - which runs between the French border and the Alicante region of Spain. So far there have been 140 cases reported to British consulates. That's an increase of about 10% on the same time last year.
"We are warning drivers of UK-registered cars and hire cars to be on the alert on motorways in Spain, both while driving and taking a break", says Dave Thomas, Consular Regional Director for Spain. "Be on your guard against anyone who attempts to stop you or ask you for help – they may well be part of a gang operating a scam in which an unseen accomplice will rob you of your things."
The scamThey find British tourists in a number of ways. They may target those with British licence plates, or branded hire cars. Alternatively, they will look out for those with expensive luggage or computer bags at the airport and tail them until they hit the motorway.
They use a number of techniques to get Brits to stop. These include making a loud bang to alarm the driver and make them pull over - at which stage one gang member pulls over offering help and another takes the chance to steal your belongings. Sometimes they fake a breakdown and wait for tourists to stop - at which point they are robbed.
Alternatively they may puncture your tyre while you are at a service station, and then offer to help. While you are distracted they then steal your bags and valuables.
VictimsThe embassy highlighted the case of Stephen and Helen Robinson from Leicestershire, who were between Barcelona and Valencia when they stopped at a service area to exercise their dog. Both were at the boot of the car when they were distracted by a man apparently on the phone, asking them how to say something in English. Meanwhile their bag was taken from the front, despite the dog being inside.
"It was quick and slick", says Mrs Robinson. "Remember that on the second day of driving down from the UK, you may be more tired and therefore more vulnerable. Separate your valuables into different places in the car, and when you stop, be aware you may be being watched. You won't see the accomplice of the person who is distracting you."
In another robbery, Joy and Alan Horton from Suffolk were aware of a vehicle close to them on the motorway, then heard a loud bang and pulled over. The other car stopped in front of them and while the driver talked animatedly to them, his passenger accomplice grabbed their belongings unseen.
"Keep all jackets, bags and valuables in a locked boot and not on the back seat where they can be seen", says Mr Horton. "If you think your car may have been in a collision and you pull over, lock the car as soon as you get out and mount a guard on both sides of the vehicle."
AdviceThese are not new scams, but an intensification of activity has led to growing unease at the British Embassy. As a result it has issued advice on staying safe. It's tips include never leaving any valuables on display (adding that most insurance policies won't cover stolen belongings from cars if they have been left on display).
They also say it's important to be extra careful in car hire collection points, service stations, and rest areas. If you have broken down or stopped because of a problem with the car, they say you should call your breakdown service. If you or other passengers leave the car, you must wear a reflective jacket. You must also display red warning triangles in front of and behind your vehicle.
Finally the advice says: "Be wary of other drivers stopping to help you or people presenting themselves as police officers. It is rare that police will arrive without being called, and traffic police are always in uniform. If you're not sure if someone is a police officer, call 112 to confirm their identity!"