Derek Freestone was sitting in the passenger seat of his friend’s Mercedes, parked in the picturesque fishing village of Emsworth in Hampshire, when two women knocked on the window and asked him to sign a petition for a deaf school.

One of them leaned forward, throwing her arms around the old 77-year-old as she attempted to kiss him.

He was shocked and barely thought about the second lady who was shaking his left hand.

Only after he’d pushed the first woman away and shut the car door did he realise his gold Rolex — bought 20 years ago for £4,500 but now worth £12,500 — was gone.

‘I jumped out and shot round the car but there was no sign of them. It happened so quickly,’ says Derek, still reeling from the robbery three months later.

‘It really hit me in the pit of my stomach. What the hell have we done to our country that this can happen in broad daylight?’

Derek Freestone, 77, of Birchington, Kent, was a victim of the Rolex Rippers having had his watch stolen from his wrist as the two female robbers distracted him with a kiss

Derek Freestone, 77 years old, was robbed of his watch by two female robbers. They distracted him with a kiss and took his watch from his wrist.

Yet, it happens with frightening regularity.

The young women were not opportunists. They were mercenary criminals thought to have carried out a series similar attacks across the south in the last five months.

Known as the ‘Rolex Rippers’, they target wealthy villages and golf clubs, searching for elderly victims.

They often pretend to have hearing loss, carry a blue clipboard, and petition for the hard-of-hearing.

After they have their victim’s attention, the demure demeanours drop.

One may shout or make unwelcome sexual advances to distract the other, sometimes assisted by a second who steals his watch.

This month alone, there were two attacks — this time in Dorset — taking the tally to 23.

Despite striking similarities between the robberies and the fact some were captured on CCTV, the women have escaped capture so far.

Many victims are as mad at the police as they are at the thieves.

Richard Gray, 79 years old, lost his Rolex on Saturday.

October 16, when he stood at his Poole home, he was told it would take over a week before an officer could take his statement.

Mr Gray, who wears a pacemaker for heart complications and who was also distracted as one of the two women tried to kiss him, wrote his own statement — seen by the Daily Mail — instead, but ‘couldn’t even get inside’ Poole police station to deliver it.

‘I had to use a phone and they told me nobody was there who could see me and that they were understaffed.

‘Is this supposed to be policing?’

So who are the Rolex Rippers then? How on earth can they get away with it?

Although at least three similar attacks were reported last year, it was this May that their crime spree — so far encompassing Dorset, Hampshire, Gloucestershire and Surrey — started in earnest.

Although each crime is similar, most victims describe the victims as dark-haired, Eastern European women in their late 20s to 40s. However, it is possible that more than two women are involved.

You can see how efficient they are by charting four attacks that occurred in just eight days this summer.

Derek, a retired wine merchant in Birchington, Kent was on his way to Goodwood Festival of Speed motor racing event when he stopped in Emsworth at 3:15pm on July 7, to pick up medication from the local pharmacy.

Derek’s friend was on the phone in the driver’s seat, trying to finalise a prescription, when there was a knock on the passenger door.

Two dark-haired, late 20-year-old women stood outside Derek’s house. They were both in their late 20s and 30s. Derek estimates they to be 5ft5in and 5ft7in tall.

Derek assumed that the women were working in the pharmacy because they wore white tops with bluepiping and dark pants.

‘So I opened the car door,’ he recalls. ‘They said, “We’re from Albania.” They stuck a board in front of me and said would I sign it — they were getting signatures for a deaf school.’

The second he did, one woman threw her arms around Derek, while the other grabbed his wrist. Derek was wearing a long-sleeved top and doesn’t know if his watch would have been visible.

‘I was strapped in the car, pinned back,’ says Derek. ‘They wanted to kiss me, put their arms around me.’

He realizes what the second woman was doing with his eyes closed. ‘She had one hand in my hand, the other round my wrist.

“She took my watch off and threaded it down my wrist and down my hand in just two to three seconds. I didn’t feel it go,’ he says.

He was stunned when he heard the crime happened in 15 seconds.

Officers from Hampshire police arrived to find an elderly man who saw the crime and said that his Rolex had been taken in a similar fashion last year. Derek believes shame has prevented other victims from coming forward. 

Alan Bruce, 63, from Ferndown, Dorset, was approached in his Audi TT seven miles away in Wimborne, Dorset, when he was robbed at about 11am on July 15

Alan Bruce, 63, from Ferndown, Dorset, was approached in his Audi TT seven miles away in Wimborne, Dorset, when he was robbed at about 11am on July 15

‘There are an awful lot more who are too embarrassed to admit they were made a fool of.’

Derek is a keen diver and bought his Oyster Perpetual because of its waterproofness down to 300m.

He claims his wife Valerie, 79 years old, was more shocked than that he was. ‘I was just bloody annoyed.

‘I’d dived with sharks in that watch. It had a sentimental value.’

Since that day, Derek has not had any contact with police. ‘Nothing is happening and I’m getting more and more irritable,’ he says.

Rolexes are problematic stolen goods, as each one has a unique serial number and every watch reported missing is put on the company’s lost and stolen register.

Stolen Rolexes may be sold multiple times by criminals over the course of years as the truth about their ownership becomes masked and their value decreases.

‘If it goes to be repaired or serviced, they check the number — and if it has been reported stolen they won’t give it back to the customer,’ says Michael Parry, whose Rolex was stolen less than 24 hours after Derek’s, 110 miles away in the Cotswolds village of Bourton-on-the-Water.

Like Derek, he is still shocked that such a crime could take place in the village, which is known for its honeyed stone cottages: ‘You don’t expect someone to mug you at 11am in Bourton supermarket.’

Michael, 84, was a retired British Airways pilot and had just come out of the Co-op. He was about to put his shopping on the passenger side of his Mini in the carpark when a woman approached.

He later discovered that her partner in crime was a nearby car.

‘They were wearing baseball caps and surgical masks and you couldn’t see a lot of their faces,’ he says.

The woman who approached him — 5ft 5in, mousey hair tied back — insinuated that she couldn’t speak by putting her finger across her mouth.

Wearing trousers and trainers, she presented him with a blue clipboard with a petition to support ‘dumb’ people.

CCTV footage shows two women, the prime suspects, dubbed the 'Rolex Rippers'. They are believed to have struck 23 times in southern England, especially in Dorset and Hampshire

CCTV footage shows the prime suspects, two women, known as the Rolex Rippers’. They are believed have struck 23 times in southern England.

Thinking there was ‘nothing wrong’ with the premise, he signed it, after which the woman launched herself at him ferociously.

‘She was gripping me so close — it was so out of the blue, I didn’t know what the hell . . .’ he falters, ‘and then she started to scream.

“She screamed the same word over and over. SEX! SEX! SEX! SEX! If you had seen me, you would have believed I was attacking her.

‘I’ve been in an awful lot of situations in my life but I’ve not come across anything like this.’

Michael, who was wearing a polo shirt that left his watch ‘quite visible’ and suffered a scratched arm, says: ‘She suddenly ran away, jumped into a car and off it went.’

It took over a minute for Michael to realise his GMT-Master Rolex, bought five years ago for £6,500 and now worth over £15,000, was missing.

He says: ‘It was a carefully planned operation.’

The supermarket manager called the police after he discovered CCTV footage showing the attack.

It was next to a silver Citroen C4 and a second criminal, who the Gloucestershire police believe was male.

‘We think the companion was holding something in his hand. It could have been a knife back to front, with the blade up the sleeve,’ he says. ‘At the time I wasn’t frightened. I’m apprehensive now.’

The car’s number plates turned out to be fake and the investigation appeared to dwindle. 

‘The police don’t seem to be showing much interest,’ says Michael.

Three days after the robbery, a friend sent him an article from The Daily Mail that revealed a series of similar crimes.

At least three attacks have been at golf clubs — meccas for wealthy retired men.

One took place 112 miles from Bourton at Ferndown Golf Club, on July 14, eight days after Michael had been robbed.

The victim, who prefers to remain anonymous, is in his 70s. He works in the property sector.

He was with a friend on a footpath near the car park, close to the Dorset club’s offices, at 11.15am, when a young, dark-haired woman in a black dress and black face mask grabbed his arm and took the Rolex Daytona from his wrist.

‘My immediate reaction was that she knew me — and the next thing her face was in my face and her two arms were around my left arm and my watch was gone,’ he says.

His friend ran after her and she jumped into a Ford Focus, which sped off, leaving him without a finger.

The victim, told by police that thieves had been in the area ‘for a couple of days, looking for targets’ and contacted this month for a DNA sample as part of the investigation (it has yet to be taken)was left recoiling in ‘total disbelief’ that he was at risk.

As he puts it, ‘I often remove my Rolex if I’m going into London. But at the golf club?’

Within a day, the gang had moved on to their next target — Alan Bruce, 63, who lives at the edge of Ferndown Golf Club and was seven miles away in Wimborne, Dorset, when he was robbed at about 11am on July 15.

After he had parked his Audi TT Sport in the town centre, two women with a clipboard approached him.

He estimated that both were in their early 20s to early 30s.

‘The taller one was in jeans and a dark top, the shorter one in a long, brightly coloured dress,’ says Alan, a divorced father of two who frequently travels for his job as a marine engineer.

‘I pick up accents and I would say they were either Albanian or Bulgarian.

‘They said: “We’re doing a petition for a deaf centre” and would I sign a document? I said no problem.’

Left-handed and wearing his £14,000 gold Yacht-Master Rolex on the same hand, he signed the petition.

The younger woman then said that she loved his aftershave, and asked where it came from.

He was shocked when she asked for a cuddle. ‘I said no.’ She tried to hug him regardless, as, he recalls, ‘her friend came up behind her and said, “I want sex with you”.’

Alarmed, he instinctively placed his right hand on the back of his wallet to protect it and pushed the women with left hand.

He realized his Rolex was missing after he had done so, and the double clasp was taken off without him feeling anything.

Pictured: Rolex Submariner watch. The timepieces are being robbed in broad daylight by the 'Rolex Rippers' using techniques that distract the victims

Pictured: Rolex Submariner watch. The ‘Rolex Rippers,’ using techniques to distract the victims, are robbing timepieces in broad daylight.

‘They’re quite difficult to get off,’ he says incredulously. ‘You lift one end, then the other and the whole thing comes off together. They’re really good at what they do.’

In the split second he’d turned his back, they had gone. ‘I felt stupid,’ he says. Alan called the police right away after he got back home. ‘They said there had been other incidents.’

A forensics team took a DNA sample from his wrist, and took away his clothes in sealed bags. The thieves are still at large.

The irony that Alan has worked in perilous countries, yet was robbed in his own affluent neighbourhood, has not escaped him.‘I’ve been in dangerous situations. I’m always watching my wallet and never wear a watch — but back home I tend to relax,’ he says.

Not only would an equivalent watch now cost him £20,000, he says, but ‘you can’t get one for two years. They’re limited edition and Rolex can’t keep up with demand.’

When asked about police response to the theft of Richard Gray’s Rolex, Local Policing Area Commander Chief Superintendent Mark Callaghan said: ‘We can confirm that since receiving the report on the afternoon of Saturday, October 16, 2021, our officers and staff have been investigating the matter and are following various lines of inquiry, including extensive CCTV inquiries.

‘We are working with other police forces to identify, locate and arrest those responsible.’

Gloucestershire police said of the theft of Michael Parry’s Rolex: ‘Following the report, police attended, searched the area and conducted house-to-house inquiries as well as CCTV inquiries.

‘If you have any information regarding the incident, please contact Gloucestershire constabulary quoting incident 187 of July 8:’

A spokesman for Hampshire police said: ‘We received reports that at 3.15pm on July 7, 2021, a man had a Rolex watch stolen in High Street, Emsworth.

“Officers spoke with the victim and explained that there were no viable avenues of inquiry. The incident would be filed pending further information.

‘Anyone with information about this incident can call us on 101 or report online, quoting reference number 44210267769.’

Additional reporting by Stephanie Condron.