SCRAP metal thieves who stole front gates as people slept in their homes are being blamed for a crime ‘epidemic’.

Homeowners living in Felmingham Road, Penge, woke up last Wednesday to find their metal gates had been lifted off their hinges and stolen overnight.

This was not the only street to be targeted that night as the Clockhouse safer neighbourhood team has had reports of 15 separate crimes and believes there are more.

And the team’s sergeant Glenn Layzell says gates have also been taken in neighbouring Penge and Cator ward.

Sgt Layzell said: “It hit us out of the blue and we did not know it was going to happen.

“My ward has been the worst hit that I know of but talking to other teams they have also had incidents.”

Robin Warren, who lives in the street, says he has seen an organised gang operating in the area for several weeks.

The 53-year-old says they have been rummaging in skips and have even taken bikes.

He said: “It’s like an epidemic at the moment.

“Every time they see a bit of scrap metal that they think they can pick up they do it.

“They are around three times a week every week.

“All the vehicles I have seen are driven by white males and they are definitely speaking an Eastern European language.”

Sgt Layzell says his team did recently stop some Eastern European people taking scrap metal from a skip.

But he says he does not know whether the gates were taken by the same people.

He said: “If we knew who was doing it we would be on their case.”

Anyone who has had a garden gate stolen in the Clockhouse ward should contact the safer neighbourhood team on 020 8721 2615 or the police on 03001 231212.