A marked Essex police car. (Photo: davebutton/CC BY 2.0)

On Saturday, in Essex County, England, a group of four men put a blue flashing light on their car and pulled over a white Mercedes Sprinter van. At least one of the men, who identified themselves as cops, was carrying a gun. Two occupants in the van were ordered out, and, within minutes, the four men took off with both vehicles, leaving the van’s occupants stranded.

Two days later, the same thing happened, this time with a Volkswagen Transporter van, and with one fewer person purporting to be a cop. Actual police officers say the men were not cops, but, in each case, they did use a car that police have used in the United Kingdom: a Ford Mondeo, adding a hint of verisimilitude to their ruse.

Essex County police said on Tuesday that, in the wake of the incidents they were taking at least one concrete step: immediately halting the pulling over of any motorist by unmarked police cars, barring emergencies. That means for now, if someone in an unmarked car tries to pull you over in this eastern English county, you should call the U.K.’s emergency number to verify that it’s real. 

The ploy can be quite elaborate. “Our victims have told us that the suspects are purporting to be police officers and are wearing body armor to further enhance this deception in order to steal these vans,” a police official said on Facebook. 

What could the thieves have wanted with the vans? It’s hard to say, though vans have been popular targets of theft in Britain in recent years. Mostly, some speculate, the thieves wanted the vehicles to be broken down and sold for parts.