A GANG of conmen targeting blind and partially sighted pensioners in Teesside has got away with more than £9,000 in 21 raids in only two months.

Both Age Concern and the Royal National Institute for the Blind are now calling for the public to be more active in looking out for their vulnerable neighbours following the spate of incidents.

Cleveland Police suspect thieves are trading the names and addresses of "soft targets", leading to people becoming repeat victims.

The thieves masquerade as officials from utility companies to bluff their way into people's homes.

Detective Chief Superintendent John Kelly, the force's director of crime operations, said: "It really is a vile, evil and callous trade. The elderly and vulnerable in our society have the right to be safe in their own homes and not subject to these vultures.

"Whilst there is no concrete evidence that the selling of names is taking place, the information we receive suggests it is a widespread practice among this type of thief and that is why some people become repeat victims to a range of conmen."

Det Ch Sup Kelly said: "To be strangers in an area and yet know exactly where to go and find blind and partially sighted pensioners shows that information had been provided to them in advance."

A popular con is for a bogus water official to ask a resident to test the water pressure by turning taps on and off while the rest of the house is ransacked.

Northumbrian Water said officials rarely need access to property but will always make a prior appointment. Northern Electric and Gas urged residents to examine all ID cards, saying their operatives would be happy to wait while they were checked.

Dave Punshon, chief executive of Age Concern, Teesside, said: "What we have to do as a society is look after and out for the vulnerable. Be a nosy neighbour."

The RNIB described preying on the blind and partially sighted as "despicable" and "truly appalling", and appealed to anyone knowing of a neighbour with sight problems needing help and advice to ring the charity's helpline on (0845) 766 9999.