Muggings and robberies soared in number last year, prompting fears that the economic downturn has fuelled a wave of street crime.
Bag thefts, pickpocketing and other instances of "theft from the person" increased by 10 per cent to almost 100,000 in England and Wales.
There was also a 9 per cent increase in robberies at knifepoint, with attackers targeting smartphones, iPods, credit cards and cash.
The rise in street offences – the biggest for 10 years – contrasts with an overall fall in crime, according to the Office for National Statistics. Police recorded a 3 per cent fall in crime incidents in 2011 from the previous year.
According to the Crime Survey for England and Wales, serious sexual offences went up by 2 per cent, thefts to and from vehicles rose by 2 per cent and burglaries increased by 1 per cent.
The survey showed "no statistically significant change in overall crime".
Deputy Chief Constable Douglas Paxton, of the Association of Chief Police Officers, said officers had made progress in driving down crime rates. But he added: "There have been increases in opportunistic thefts and robbery offences."