Would Covid masks help criminals get away with it? It was the question posed by police, academics and many others when face coverings became compulsory in shops and other premises last year.

Now, it seems, they have their answer as Kent police say catching suspects has become even trickier as putting together an accurate efit – which officers use like wanted posters – is difficult when the person in question is wearing a mask.

Susan Morrison, a civilian supervisor at Kent police’s identification suite, said: “We are seeing an increase in reports of suspects wearing masks. And while we view each case separately, sometimes it can be more stressful for the victim to go through the process of making an efit, than the result is useful to the investigation.”

She told Kent Online: “It’s horrible to say no to people but sometimes, especially with masks, it just won’t help.”

In March, it was reported that charity leaders were worried about gang members using masks to disguise themselves as teenagers while selling drugs.

Nathaniel Peat, the founder of the Safety Box, a charity set up after the death of the promising young footballer Kiyan Prince in 2006, told the Daily Telegraph: “To police, they look just like a young person being cautious instead of someone assumed to be selling drugs.”

Last April the Nottingham Post reported that thieves wearing “protective Covid-19 masks” stole a man’s car from his drive while he unloaded his shopping. The victim said: “My neighbour told me they were wearing the protective masks used in hospitals for coronavirus. This is opportune theft. The sick opportunists used it as a disguise to get my car, taking advantage of the current situation.”

The phenomenon is by no means limited to the UK. US media outlets have reported on a couple going on daylong crime sprees in Connecticut, during which they are accused of robbing several shops while disguised in medical masks.

When it was announced that wearing masks would be compulsory in many indoor UK settings, academics at Leeds University began exploring the possibility they could be used as cover for criminal enterprise.

Emily Sheard and Graham Farrell of the university’s law school wrote: “Although they were sometimes used before the pandemic, there have been news reports of commercial robbers wearing surgical masks and reports of a surge in California.”

In order to combat an increase in mask-assisted crime, they warned shop owners to look out for robbers returning for a second bite of the cherry because “we know that successful commercial robbers return to the same, nearby or same-type premises”.

DS James Bond, of Nottinghamshire police, told the local paper in September: “We have definitely convicted people who have tried to conceal their face with a mask.

“We identified one burglar where he had his mask on throughout the burglary. We could prove it was him because he had tattoos on his face. With the use of improved CCTV we can identify them with the Covid mask on. And at some point they will have to take it off and we will find them.”

This content first appear on the guardian

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