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Are Retail Flash Mob Robberies Really Organized Retail Crime?

Anyone reading this article is probably very familiar with organized retail crime (ORC). In fact, the very first issue of Loss Prevention Magazine in the fall of 2001 included a cover article by King Rogers discussing the subject. Wikipedia defines ORC as “shoplifting, cargo theft, retail crime rings, and other organized crime occurring in retail environments.” ORC losses are estimated to be as much as $30 billion a year. And retailers and law enforcement around the world spend millions of dollars a year trying to combat it. Many major retailers have whole loss prevention departments dedicated to the fight.

Most retail LP professionals have heard about the July 5th flash mob robbery incident at a North Face outlet store in Wisconsin. A group of ten young men entered the store and gathered up approximately $30,000 in merchandise in about 20 or 30 seconds and fled the store. A lot of media covered this theft under the banner of ORC, quoting statistics and outlining the ORC problem around the world. But are flash mob robberies really retail ORC? The key component of the ORC definition is “organized.” This usually means a criminal group who routinely work together, carefully planning their activities, and often targeting multiple stores in multiple locations. There is usually a hierarchy structure that includes lookouts, thieves, fences, and leadership.

Flash mobs, on the other hand, are defined by Wikipedia as “a group of people, usually organized by social media, who assemble in a public place and perform a seemingly pointless act in a brief period of time and quickly disperse.” Flash mobs who gather to steal or rob are now often referred to as “flash robs.” Yes, flash mobs are organized, but usually only for a very short period of time. Thus, I would argue that flash mobs are not ORC as we know it.

Nevertheless, flash mob robberies are a serious threat to retail. The subject began getting a lot of media coverage around 2011. At that time, the National Retail Federation (NRF) reported that 10 percent of retail businesses said they had been victims of flash mob robberies. And they are continuing and seemingly getting easier to form with the widespread use of Facebook and Twitter.

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So, what’s a retailer to do to protect themselves against flash mob robberies? In a February 2018 article on the subject in LP Magazine, Frank Muscato offered these ten suggestions:

• 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 robbery information is shared.
• Through interviews of those arrested, identify the leaders and their methods of operating.

Based on their very nature, flash mob robberies are hard to prevent. But it’s critical that all retailers train their employees to be aware and alert to the possibility, to not engage the mob in any way, to concentrate on remembering descriptions of perpetrators and vehicles, and to call the police as soon as it’s safe. And always remember, as with any retail crime, no amount of merchandise is worth risking the safety of employees and customers.

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