What started out a few years ago as a phenomenon that used social networking sites to gather a group of people in a public place to dance or perform another innocent form of entertainment has since evolved into a method of gathering together violent protesters—or thieves in pursuit of your merchandise. Even public transit travelers can be susceptible to flash mob robbery tactics: in April, an incident occurred on a BART commuter train in Oakland, CA, wherein dozens of teenagers reportedly jumped over the turnstiles and seized a purse, a duffel bag, and multiple cell phones from victims and scattered before authorities arrived.
Retailers need to recognize the existence of the flash mob robbery phenomenon and form alliances and strategies to deal with these episodes. There needs to be a “solution reaction” developed and shared among retailers. With groups of 30 to 60 people, ranging in ages, entering stores with the intent to steal large amounts of retail property, the solution has to be quick, formidable, and absolute. Solutions may entail identifying a group leader or methods of actually detaining one or more of the mob participants. Without a collective strategy, these flash mobs could overrun our stores.
Safety in Numbers
First, we need to understand the reason the flash mob is entering the retail store. Regardless of the sociology of these groups, be they thrill-seeking teenagers or violence-prone gangbangers, the fact is they are entering your store to steal merchandise. The merchandise is being taken for personal use or sold to make money. The bottom line for retailers is lost merchandise and possible threat of injury to customers and associates.
The fear ratio among the flash mob is little to zero because they understand there is power in numbers. That will win over fear of reprisal or punishment every time. These groups understand that the retailer will likely do little to stop these crimes. After all, retailers have limited responses. They may call the police, who will likely arrive long after the episode is over, as in the BART scenario. Or they may try to take some of the stolen property from mob members while they are on the way out of the store. The latter is less likely, as most retailers forbid their staff, for good cause, from any type of confrontation with thieves.
The flash mob has the advantage in these thefts because there are few things that can be done to stop them. Theft and larceny state laws are weak and often ineffective unless pressure is put on those who enforce these laws, and that rarely happens. The mob knows that if they take the merchandise and run away, there will be little that can be done because of the size of the group.
Consider this example: A 30-person flash mob enters a store, takes the desired merchandise, and begins to leave the store. In a best-case scenario, a police officer is nearby or actually working in the store. He gives orders to “FREEZE!” Yet all the mob members continue to exit the store with the stolen property. That officer may be able to physically stop one or two of these thieves. That means that the other 28 thieves leave the store with hundreds or thousands of dollars in stolen property. They still have not committed any crime other than theft (in most states). There would not be any further charges, such as escape, resisting arrest, or evading arrest, because it would be the state’s responsibility to prove that the person heard the officer or knew that the officer was talking directly to them. All that law enforcement has is a theft, and it is most probably a minor or misdemeanor theft, because the felony levels throughout the county have risen over the past few years.
Retailers have to be proactive and create a deterrence to these flash mob robberies. If these mobs can figure out ways to steal property from us, retailers can certainly figure out ways to stop these flash mobs. Enacting legislation aimed at organized retail crime is a long and difficult road. Even if legislation were on the books today, you would still have to find someone to enforce that legislation.
Retailers’ best bet is to develop a series of solution reactions. Unless these mobs have fear of reprisal, they will continue to hit retailers. Following are some suggestions to consider.
- Create retail and law enforcement flash mob robbery prevention coalitions to brainstorm and develop prevention and reaction strategies.
- Develop training for both retailers and law enforcement on how to deal with these episodes.
- Consider ways for store personnel to intervene at the beginning of the episode–not physically, but verbally, vocally, and visually.
- Develop ways for remote monitoring facilities to alert law enforcement dispatch facilities or mall security.
- Create an alarm or alert system to identify potential flash mobs in certain areas, such as malls.
- Create a system identifying these groups with the information shared among retailers.
- Research present laws that can be enforced when these episodes occur.
- Lobby for new legislation that brings serious penalties to those involved in flash mob robberies.
- Get federal, state, and local involvement to monitor the sites where flash-mob information is shared.
- Through interviews of those arrested, identify the leaders and their methods of operating.
Organized Retail Crime
There is a good possibility that those who are already fencing stolen goods are going to participate in these crimes, if they are not already. It is also obvious that criminal street gangs will likely use these same tactics as a cover to acquire large amounts of expensive retail property. That means that flash mobs may become another tactic for organized retail crime.
Violence is always a potential issue when criminal and neighborhood gangs are involved. For the most part, retailers will not be able to recognize the difference between violence-prone gangs and misguided teenagers acting as flash mobs. Therein lies a real threat, if retailers try to stop someone involved in one of these episodes.
Fences, on the other hand, face little chance of being identified with these flash mob robberies because there is no physical participation at the scene of the theft by the fence. The fence waits until the stolen property is brought to him or her and buys it for about 25 percent of the retail value. It will be hard to prove that the fence encouraged the group to commit the crime, because a smart fence will only discuss the value of the property, not how the seller acquired it. So the established stolen property fence should have no problem building their illegal business with the rise in flash-mob thefts at retail stores.
The primary responsibility for preventing flash mobs from committing thefts in the stores lies with the retailer. How merchandise is displayed and controlled is at issue. The number of employees and their positions within the store are vital to preventing these groups from gaining control of high-end merchandise. Retailers are quick to point the finger at the thieves, but some of the blame can be traced back to the retailer. They should have good security video systems in place, experienced, trained associates on the floor, high-end merchandise secured, and loss prevention personnel trained and involved.
Retailers and Store Personnel
Retailers should establish a coalition to deal with identifying these types of organized retail crimes when they start occurring in different areas of the country. Information on incidents involving flash mobs should be discussed and training established within the retail community. Again, retailers cannot wait for law enforcement to do something about flash mobs, because it will be too late.
Following are a few suggestions for store-level personnel:
• Call the police as soon as it is recognized as a possible flash mob robbery event.
• Get descriptions of those involved.
• Secure any video of the incident.
• Identify possible leaders, including those giving orders, vocalizing on what to steal, pointing where to go, etc.
• Get any vehicle descriptions possible.
• Monitor and identify how much and what type of product is stolen.
• If appropriate, notify shopping mall security.
• Share information with other retailers.
• Protect any physical evidence left by the flash mob.
There is little law enforcement can do about flash mobs until they are involved in a crime. Simply organizing a flash mob is not against the law—yet. Once the flash mob engages in the actions to commit a crime, law enforcement can take action, but until then they are powerless. There needs to be some preventive measures and intelligence-building initiated within the law enforcement community dealing with these types of crimes. Coalitions need to be established and information shared among those responsible for preventing these thefts.
When violence is involved, of course, law enforcement takes quick action. However, crimes that don’t involve violence are usually treated as “simple theft” and put on the back burner. With our prisons full and the costs of keeping felons locked up a growing burden to the state, flash mobs can grow in frequency until someone is seriously injured. Even then, only that incident will be identified as a serious issue.
This may be the easiest avenue in helping to prevent these types of crimes. Again, legislation is only as good as it can or will be enforced. The best way to create laws specific to flash-mob theft is to amend present statutes already on the books.
Keep in mind that “robbery” is simply “theft by force,” which is a felony in all states. By definition, “force” could be a weapon of some kind, a physical assault, or a “threat that instills an imminent fear in someone.” In essence, imminent fear is what is created when a large group of people enter a retail store and start loading up on merchandise. Individuals working in the store would certainly think that if they tried to interfere in this situation, these thieves would band together to stop that interference, therefore creating that imminent fear. Amending state robbery laws in this way would make the offense a robbery and a felony for any participant of a flash mob involved in that retail theft. Since robbery is considered a violent crime, it would also help ensure law enforcement involvement.
Things have been changing in favor of retail over the past decade or two as retail and law enforcement have banded together, creating coalitions, getting involved with state and national retail associations, enacting legislation aimed at organized retail crime, and sharing information within the private-public sectors concerning criminal acts committed against retailers.
It is time to add flash-mob theft to crimes against retailers before we find ourselves trailing these types of crimes like we did with organized crime. ORC had a healthy foot in our door before retailers recognized it as a serious threat to their businesses. It behooves us to be proactive before flash mobs get out of hand.
SIDEBAR: Flash Mob Robbery Incidents at Sears
Several years ago, theft incidents involving flash mobs occurred in Sears stores in Upper Darby, PA, and Douglasville, GA. The two events involved primarily teenagers who entered the stores with the intent to shoplift merchandise.
In Upper Darby, seventeen individuals entered the store and took watches, shoes, and clothing in approximately eight minutes. A loss prevention associate observed the entire incident and immediately called local police, who arrived just after the group exited. The LP associate observed the group going to a nearby fast-food restaurant, where police apprehended the suspects and recovered the merchandise. Sixteen juveniles and one adult were charged with retail theft. The young adult who appeared to be leading the group was also charged with corrupting minors.
The Douglasville incident involved eight females who entered the store and began concealing large amounts of merchandise in the women’s clothing and cosmetics departments. Upon observing the first concealment, loss prevention called police, who arrived within five minutes with the suspects still in the store. The four officers were able to apprehend all but three of the suspects. The five suspects apprehended ranged in age from 12 to 16. A 17- and 19-year-old and another minor escaped police.
“In both of these cases, the flash mobs appeared to be young people involved in personal shoplifting as opposed to organized retail crime gangs,” said Bill Titus, former vice president of loss prevention for Sears Holdings. “Fortunately, our store personnel followed their training, resulting in the police making apprehensions and recovering the stolen merchandise.”
The guidelines given to Sears store loss prevention professionals centered around three elements:
• Be Aware—Report to LP or store management whenever associates see large gatherings of juveniles inside or directly outside the store.
• Deter Theft—Attempt to discourage thefts by stationing associates near high-value merchandise and displaying good customer service to those participating in the incident.
• React—Call 911 once acts of theft are observed. Do not call police simply because a group enters the store. The LP team should continue to monitor the group and document the incident, but should never attempt to make an apprehension, as it would not be safe to do so.
This article was originally published in 2011 and was updated May 24, 2017.