SOUTHEND smokers are being targeted by a con-artist who promises to sell cigarettes on the cheap, but then runs off with their cash.

The man has taken up to £50 a time from people hoping to get a deal, but never returns with their products.

Police are warning residents not to fall for the con which they said preys on the vulnerable.

PC Javier Rodriguez-Perez said: “A lot of people who buy cigarettes might not have a lot of cash anyway, so buying them on the cheap and then being conned is a big deal.

“Residents need a fighting chance to recognise this is a scam.”

On some occasions the man, who meets his victims in the town centre, has even convinced his victims to let him into their cars to drive to a cash machine.

He builds trust by striking conversation about how he apparently did some building or maintenance work for them or their relatives and asks if they still smoke the same brand of cigarettes, having watched what they are smoking earlier.

PC Rodriguez-Perez added: “Over the last few weeks there has been a dramatic increase in people approached by this man.

“They need to make sure if they are approached by him they gently decline his offer and contact police about it.

“On one occasion he met the female victim in the High Street and went with her in the vehicle to a BP garage away from town.

There are so many banks in the town centre he’s obviously being cunning to avoid suspicions from other people.

“There was a spate of this last year. There will be more people who have been approached on a day to day basis and more who have been victims and haven’t called police because they feel silly about it.”

The man is described as a slim white male with very short cropped hair, or might be bald.

Anyone with information or if they have been a victim