Veterans in St. John's learned on the eve of Remembrance Day they are the victims of a theft, with at least 30 poppy cans stolen from area shops.

Thieves have been helping themselves to the cans — which can attract donations of varying amounts, some holding well over $100 — at coffee shops, gas stations and retailers.

Three Royal Canadian Legions in the St. John's area have between them reported a string of disturbing thefts.

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Legion treasurer Thomasine Spurrell says veterans have been shocked by a string of thefts of poppy cans. (CBC )

"They're not robbing us, the Legion," said Thomasine Spurrell, the treasurer of a Royal Canadian Legion Branch that has had 15 cans swiped from plain view.

"They're robbing the veterans, them and their families."

Poppy cans are not just a symbol of Remembrance Day, but an important fundraising tool for the Legion. Donations are used to pay for services for veterans.

Spurrell said some of the thefts have been occurring in full view of surveillance cameras. At a Tim Hortons coffee shop near downtown St. John's, a man in a red jacket can be seen moving quickly through the shop.

Jim Kennedy, who runs the poppy campaign for the Legion in neighbouring Mount Pearl, said he has never seen anything like this year's robberies.

"Past years, you might lose one can, two cans … but not the magnitude that there's been this year," Kennedy told CBC News. "It's way out of control."

Crime statistics show that thefts in the St. John's area have climbed 53 per cent in the last year.

Some stores have already resorted to keeping poppy tins behind the counter.