One day in October of 2017, a man of medium build entered a Rite Aid in one of the nation’s largest cities, approached the register, and demanded cash. As the drawer was being opened, the subject flung himself over the counter, grabbing whatever cash he could. He fled on foot, leaving behind a shaken cashier, and by the time police arrived, the unknown subject had safely dissolved back into the surrounding community. Unfortunately, often, this type of story ends right here.
But this real-life crime drama has an unusual second act, which picks up a few days later when a woman some miles away checks her social media feed and sees a surveillance snapshot of the Rite Aid robber with a note about a $5,000 reward for information leading to his arrest. The face in the picture is familiar. She clicks on the link to Solveacrime.com and starts filling out the website’s tip form. She types in information on the suspect, and it is submitted to Solveacrime.com for follow up. A few days later the subject is apprehended.
Just like that, a very different ending to the story—and a conclusion that is becoming increasingly common in robbery and assault events at Rite Aid stores, according to Robert Oberosler, group vice president of asset protection at Rite Aid.
Oberosler is an advocate of Solveacrime because this crowdsourcing tool is quite effective in closing more cases than before and doing so in record time. It is also a strong deterrent by putting criminals on notice that if you rob a Rite Aid, your picture will be plastered everywhere online.
The site is less than a year old but is already proving to effectively leverage the power of social media for retail victims of crime. “It’s unbelievable the amount of views a crime posting will get in a geographic area, and the number of times it’s forwarded on social media to someone else,” remarked Oberosler. “We’ve seen posts with several thousand views in the first hour and as many forwards.”
Tips solicited through the site have directly resulted in numerous apprehensions for Rite Aid and a more than twofold increase in its case-closure rate. “We’re now closing over 50 percent of our violent crimes within a week,” said Oberosler. “It has become one of the most interesting and quick successes that I have ever had with a new solution and I’ve been in AP for forty years.”
That the platform’s value to retailers will grow alongside the number of crime posts and tipsters is why many law enforcement officers, as well as people who are responsible for asset protection for major retailers, feel they should fully utilize this important new crime-solving technology tool. They see that it can, as Oberosler says, “put a lot of pressure on the ORC operators stealing for resale as well as let them know we know them and are sharing information about them that will help us identify and make them accountable for their actions.”
Most importantly, Oberosler sees the solution as capable of reshaping LP’s role vis-a-vis crime. “Our industry plays defense, and we do it pretty darn well. Once in a while we’ll be on offense, and we’ll do some surveillance and, with law enforcement, take down some big fencing operation, but for the most part and most of the time, we are on defense,” explained Oberosler. “But this tool allows me to play on offense.”
The most surprising upside has been the speed with which tips come in and cases get solved. “Law enforcement has been astonished at some of our results, especially with the quickness. Many cases are solved in a couple of days. In one case we went from posting a crime, to getting a tip, to apprehension by law enforcement in three hours,” said Oberosler. He added, a smile notable in his voice, “It’s fun to play offense.”
How It Works
Solveacrime is premised upon two undeniable truths. First, if you can put information in front of enough people, you can extract something in return. Evidence of this abounds, most notably in crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and GoFundMe, where enough people gave enough tiny donations to fund a $13,000 inflatable replica of Lionel Ritchie’s head and $18,633 for a griddle that imposes a pirate symbol into pancakes.
The second truth is that crime is an endless source of fascination and/or concern. Be it community-watch members warning one other about a car break-in or throngs drawn to the latest television crime series or a James Patterson novel, the appetite for “whodunit” is endless.
Solveacrime combines those forces—the power of social media and the insatiable interest in crime. “This is the first crowdsourcing, crime-solving system, which empowers people to upload incidents of crime to get help with solving them,” according to Dario Brebric, president of Captis Intelligence, which operates the Solveacrime platform.
Rite Aid pays a subscription to post crimes via Solveacrime.com. Out of the 2.8 million users registered to receive crime alerts, a crime posting is then sent out via email to individuals in the relevant geographic area. From there, it spreads. “Viral crime solving” is the company’s pitch.
It’s like Crimestoppers, in that the goal is to solicit tips from the public to solve crimes. And it’s akin to local news reports that ask for the public’s help, but again, the scale is different, according to Brebric. “Local news might show one or two a broadcast, but what about the other 100 crimes? We can carry an unlimited number of videos, which reach hundreds of thousands of people daily. In a city like Los Angeles we can generate 250,000 views in one to two days,” he said.
Available services also go beyond the solicitation of crime tips, including information from analytics that monitor who looks at a crime posting, who they share it with, and comments that are made about a crime—the “chatter.” “These all provide additional investigation points,” explained Brebric. A client retailer can, for example, run a daily query to reveal every time someone had mentioned their store name in connection with any number of keywords, such as “robbery” or “drugs.”
Ultimately, Brebric suggests that harnessing the power of the public may help to alter the perception among criminals of the risks and rewards of retail crime, as well as the perception of retailers toward investigations and crime prevention. “Retailers have so many crimes that they normally would have to write off as ‘we can’t find this person,’ but we can get them tips that lead to law enforcement apprehensions that they’ve never been able to have,” said Brebric. “Retail has never before had a conduit providing them such a large crowdsourcing presence.”
Brebric sees the platform’s value as being more fundamental then simply solving more cases of retail crime. He believes it provides a missing puzzle piece that has long plagued the asset protection industry. In his twenty years of experience developing enterprise security systems—for casinos, retail, and other large organizations—he has always perceived a basic flaw. “I have sold the best there is—cutting-edge cameras, effective storage and retrieval systems—and at end of the day the question is always the same: who is that criminal that my million-dollar surveillance system got a nice clean picture of? There has never been a good way to answer that.”
It was that missing piece that Brebric says led him to develop Solveacrime.
“It’s always been about that—and the fact that law enforcement can’t keep up with the demand and the number of videos that are ripe for investigations.”
Many in law enforcement also see potential in “crowdsolving” and think it will increasingly play an important role in crime prevention. “Social media is a fantastic tool, and in concert with banks, retail stores, or whomever the victims of crime are, it’s imperative that law enforcement takes advantage of it,” said Curt Crum, special services manager in the criminal investigation division of the Boise (Idaho) Police Department and president of the Coalition of Law Enforcement and Retail Conference (CLEAR). Crum sees value in all of the many different models of intelligence sharing and platforms for posting incidents—free ones, subscriber-based, industry, law enforcement—especially for addressing high-profile crimes. “There is a need for all of it,” he said.
The Internet and social media are forever changing all aspects of society—asset protection included. “I’ve talked to a couple of peers, and they’re already putting their nose in and saying ‘this could really work,’” Oberosler said. “I’ve been in AP for a long time, and we’ve never collectively had a platform that could help provide a solution to a national issue.”
Live for a little more than seven months, retailers are early in the learning curve about Solveacrime, according to Brebric. “It’s still a young audience, but major retailers are starting to become aware, and as a concept it makes a lot of sense to them,” he said. There is one common point of concern, however. “They want to be sure that the store can remain anonymous, and that exactly when and where a crime happened doesn’t have to be disclosed.”
Especially for a high-end retailer in a tony shopping district, the idea of advertising that a crime took place is a real worry—and one that the site accommodates. Retailers can remain anonymous, and other identifying features about a crime don’t need to be included. “The retailer has the option because he has the keys. What information they want to release about an incident is up to them,” explained Brebric. “Some retailers, for personal, branding reasons, will choose to remain anonymous.” In those cases, a retailer will typically share a series of still images that are edited to remove any indication of where the crime took place, and identify only the zip code where it happened. “Then they will throw the question out to the crowd, of ‘do you know who this person is?’ and they still get tips.”
But while stores can post crimes anonymously, they may not want to. Rite Aid, for one, is finding value in fueling its reputation as a retailer that will go to great lengths to catch a criminal.
Although the tool is still in its nascent stage, certain strategies are proving to be helpful at maximizing tips. Not surprisingly, offering a reward is one of them. “Rewards are a big enticer. You can get some tips with zero dollars; but $500 to $1,000 is sort of the minimum for a major crime to get people to turn others in,” explained Brebric, who added that, with a sufficient reward, retailers can overcome almost any traditional loyalty. “For a $5,000 reward, we’ve had people turn in their own mother and brothers.”
The importance of getting at least one good facial image to share is also becoming increasingly clear. Having a variety of images from different vantage points is critical and helps clients better leverage Solveacrime.
On the developer side, Brebric said they’ve gotten better at selecting the registered users to whom they send videos, so they don’t inundate people with crime posts while maximizing tips. “We’ve learned how big a blast radius we need to be the most effective.”
Read Hayes, PhD, CPP, director of the Loss Prevention Research Council, identifies five zones of influence
where it is possible to apply Solveacrime to impede retail theft. The shelf point/product asset, for example, is the first zone that can be influenced to deter crime. It expands out from there, into Zones 2 through 4—the category area, the interior, and then into the parking lot. The model identifies a final “Zone 5” as the public sphere, where retail has historically had limited influence.
“In AP we’ve done pretty well in the first and second zones, for example, but we’ve never really played in Zone 5, everything beyond the parking lot,” said Oberosler. “But this is a tool that we’re using to influence social media and to make apprehensions. I really think it’s going to be able to give us a Zone-5 influence that we’ve never had before.”