Christmas shoppers were left trapped inside an illegal store in the UK's "counterfeit capital" when staff fled at the sight of police, it has been revealed.
Officers heard people inside the building shouting for help as they patrolled an area of Manchester last Tuesday (6 December 2022).
It is thought that one of the workers locked the shop after being alerted about police being nearby.
Detective Superintendent Neil Blackwood said: "Our officers had a duty of care to force their way in and safeguard the individuals who had been trapped inside a building that was structurally unsound, utterly unsafe and from which they had absolutely no means of escape."
Police believe they were spotted by someone paid to keep watch and alert illegitimate business owners about approaching officers.
The worker had then escaped after locking the business and leaving the shoppers trapped inside.
Greater Manchester Police says Cheetham Hill and Strangeways is "well-known across the UK as the place to go for cheap, fake designer goods".
According to the force's website, illegitimate trade in the area is thought to be linked to almost half of the country's estimated £8.6 billion counterfeit business, earning it the title of the UK capital for counterfeit.
Officers from Operation Vulcan, who are working to rid the area of criminal activity, rescued the group of 30 startled shoppers after hearing their shouts.
Forcing entry under an emergency warrant to preserve life, they rescued the people who were huddled inside.
Amongst the group, they found an elderly lady who had a broken arm and needed help getting down a steep and narrow flight of stairs towards the exit.
Officers said they found a "rabbit warren" of single-room shops selling counterfeit designer clothes, watches, electronics and other items.
They said they found so much that it took them five days to seize and log everything.
Det Supt Blackwood said: "This latest seizure will make a dent in the finances of criminals but where Operation Vulcan will make the most impact is if members of the public start to shun these illegal businesses.
"They are bringing devastating harm to our communities and those running them have no regard for your safety or welfare.
"This isn’t the first report we’ve heard of members of the public being locked in – sometimes for hours – and we’ve even received reports of customers being assaulted by staff.
"I appreciate that at Christmas time everyone wants to find a bargain, but by going to these illegal shops in the Cheetham Hill and Strangeways area, consumers are not only funding criminality, they are also putting themselves in very real danger."