Although many of­fences are still com­mit­ted by young men, the el­derly are in­creas­ingly turn­ing to crime in Europe and Asia

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Bri­tish tabloids were abuzz af­ter a re­cent dra­matic heist in Lon­don’s Hat­ton Gar­den di­a­mond dis­trict as thieves made off with more than £10 mil­lion (R193 mil­lion) in cash and gems from a heav­ily se­cured vault. Ac­cord­ing to one the­ory, the gang used a con­tor­tion­ist who slith­ered into the vault. Oth­ers held that a thir­tysome­thing crim­i­nal ge­nius known as the King of Di­a­monds had mas­ter­minded the ca­per.

But when po­lice ar­rested nine sus­pects, the most strik­ing thing about the crew wasn’t phys­i­cal dex­ter­ity or vil­lain­ous bril­liance. It was age.

The youngest sus­pect in the case is 42 and most are much older, in­clud­ing two men in their mid-70s. At a pre­lim­i­nary hear­ing on May 21, a 74-year-old sus­pect said he couldn’t un­der­stand a clerk’s ques­tions be­cause he was hard of hear­ing. A sec­ond sus­pect, aged 59, walked with a pro­nounced limp.

Young men still com­mit a dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of crimes in most coun­tries. But crime rates among the el­derly are ris­ing in Bri­tain and other Euro­pean and Asian na­tions, adding a wor­ry­ing new di­men­sion to the prob­lem of aging pop­u­la­tions.

South Korea re­ported this month that crimes com­mit­ted by peo­ple 65 and over rose 12.2% from 2011 to 2013 – in­clud­ing an eye-pop­ping 40% in­crease in vi­o­lent crime – out­strip­ping a 9.6% rise in the coun­try’s el­derly pop­u­la­tion dur­ing the pe­riod.

In Ja­pan, crime by peo­ple over 65 more than dou­bled from 2003 to 2013, with el­derly peo­ple ac­count­ing for more shoplift­ing than teenagers.

In the Nether­lands, a 2010 study found a sharp rise in ar­rests and incarceration of el­derly peo­ple.

And in Lon­don, po­lice say that ar­rests of peo­ple aged 65 and over rose by 10% from March 2009 to March 2014, even as ar­rests of un­der-65s fell by 24%.

The num­ber of el­derly Bri­tish pri­son in­mates has been ris­ing at a rate more than three times that of the over­all pri­son pop­u­la­tion for most of the past decade. The US seems to have es­caped the trend. Ac­cord­ing to the Bureau of Jus­tice Statis­tics, the rate of el­derly crime among peo­ple aged 55 to 65 has de­creased since the 1980s. While the pop­u­la­tion of el­derly pri­son in­mates has grown, they mainly re­flect longer sen­tences, es­pe­cially for drug-re­lated crimes.

El­derly peo­ple in de­vel­oped coun­tries tend to be “more as­sertive, less sub­mis­sive, and more fo­cused on in­di­vid­ual so­cial and eco­nomic needs” than ear­lier gen­er­a­tions were, says Bas van Alphen, a psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor at the Free Uni­ver­sity of Brussels who has stud­ied crim­i­nal be­hav­iour among the el­derly.

“When they see in their peer group that some­one has much more money than they do, they are ea­ger to get that,” he says.

Older peo­ple may also com­mit crimes be­cause they feel iso­lated. “I had one pa­tient who stole candies to han­dle the hours of lone­li­ness ev­ery day,” says Van Alphen, who de­scribes this as “nov­elty- seek­ing” be­hav­iour.

Ris­ing poverty rates among the el­derly are be­ing blamed in some coun­tries.

That’s the case in South Korea, where 45% of peo­ple over 65 live be­low the poverty line, the high­est rate among the 30 de­vel­oped coun­tries be­long­ing to the Or­gan­i­sa­tion for Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion and Devel­op­ment. “The gov­ern­ment should make an all-out ef­fort to ex­pand the so­cial safety net and pro­vide jobs and dwellings for the el­derly,” the Korea Times news­pa­per said this month, warn­ing that by 2026 more than 20% of the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion will be over 65.

The Opa Bande (Grandpa Gang), three Ger­man men in their 60s and 70s who were con­victed in 2005 of rob­bing more than €1 mil­lion (R14 mil­lion) from 12 banks, tes­ti­fied at their trial that they were try­ing to top up their pen­sion benefits. One de­fen­dant, Wil­fried Ack­er­mann, said he used his share to buy a farm where he could live be­cause he was afraid of be­ing put in a re­tire­ment home. But the per­pe­tra­tors of the Lon­don jewel heist were nei­ther iso­lated nor im­pov­er­ished. Pros­e­cu­tors say the thieves dis­abled an el­e­va­tor and climbed down the shaft, then used a high-pow­ered drill to cut into the vault. Once in­side, they re­moved valu­ables from 72 safety-de­posit boxes, haul­ing them away in bags and bins and load­ing them into a wait­ing van. Although their faces were ob­scured by hard hats and other head­gear, the tabloids gave each thief a nick­name based on dis­tinc­tive char­ac­ter­is­tics seen on cam­era.

Two of them, dubbed Tall Man and Old Man, “strug­gle to move a bin be­fore they drag it out­side”, the Mir­ror news­pa­per re­ported in its anal­y­sis of the se­cu­rity footage. “The Old Man leans on the bin, strug­gling for breath.”

Most of the nine men charged in the case ap­peared to be or­di­nary blokes. The hard-of-hear­ing 74-year-old was de­scribed by his Lon­don neigh­bours as an af­fa­ble re­tiree who loves dogs; the 59-year-old with a limp was said to be a for­mer truck driver. An­other de­fen­dant runs a plumb­ing busi­ness in the Lon­don sub­urbs. All nine are be­ing held in cus­tody on charges of con­spir­acy to com­mit bur­glary; they haven’t yet en­tered pleas.

Richard Hobbs, a so­ci­ol­o­gist at the Uni­ver­sity of Es­sex who stud­ies crime in Bri­tain, says the coun­try’s crim­i­nal un­der­world has changed dramatically in re­cent years. Rather than con­gre­gat­ing in pubs or on street cor­ners, many crim­i­nals now live seem­ingly or­di­nary lives, rais­ing fam­i­lies and run­ning le­git­i­mate busi­nesses. They still par­tic­i­pate in crime, but only with trusted as­so­ciates. “They don’t see them­selves as crim­i­nals, they see them­selves as busi­ness­men,” says Hobbs.

That makes it eas­ier for el­derly crim­i­nals to stay in the game. Older crim­i­nals of­ten have ex­ten­sive net­works to draw on for needed ex­per­tise, he adds. And some es­sen­tial skills, such as money laun­der­ing, don’t re­quire phys­i­cal vigour.

But geri­atric crime poses spe­cial chal­lenges. At the trial of the Grandpa Gang, its mem­bers de­scribed how their 74-year-old co-de­fen­dant, Ru­dolf Richter, al­most botched a 2003 bank heist by slip­ping on a patch of ice, forc­ing them to take ex­tra time to help him into the get­away car. And the 74-year-old had an­other prob­lem, co-de­fen­dant Ack­er­mann told the court: “We had to stop con­stantly so he could pee.”

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