‘Flash Robs’ Vex Retailers

Retailers this holiday season are preparing to protect themselves against a new group of unwanted visitors: swarms of teenagers and young adults who plot via Twitter, phone texts and Facebook to descend on stores and steal merchandise.
Law enforcement officials call them “flash robs,” a criminal incarnation of the “flash mob” phenomenon in which participants use social media to organize impromptu gatherings, from dances in shopping malls to uprisings in the Middle East.

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In Philadelphia, about 40 boys swarmed into a suburban Sears in June and made off with thousands of dollars in merchandise including sneakers, socks and pretty much anything else they could snatch, police said.

While flash mobs can entertain, the threat of coordinated shoplifting has retailers concerned. Above, a police officer evacuates shoppers and flash-mob participants from a California mall last December.

Several retail chains including Filene’s Basement, Armani Exchange and The North Face were victimized by similar incidents in Chicago this spring in which teens ran inside stores in Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile shopping district, screamed, knocked over displays and fled with jeans, sweaters and shirts.

In Washington, D.C., surveillance cameras caught a group of 10 young women streaming into a convenience store in August and making off with bags of snacks. Similar incidents have broken out in Cleveland, Las Vegas and St. Paul, Minn., among other places.

The National Retail Federation says that flash-mob attacks were reported by 10% of the 106 retailers it surveyed in July, a group that included department stores and big-box chains, as well as grocery and drug-store operators. Security personnel or police nabbed suspects in about half the cases, according to the survey, which examined crimes involving more than one perpetrator. Several incidents resulted in injuries, the survey found.

For the first time the trade association included advice for handling flash mobs in its recommendations to its members about controlling crowds during big events. Among other things, the NRF is urging retailers and police to monitor social networks and websites for indications that groups will be descending on a store. In addition, workers should alert managers or loss-prevention workers when they see unusually large gatherings of people inside or directly outside the stores.

In Chicago, the Greater North Michigan Avenue Association, a local merchants group, organized meetings between retailers and police, who pointed out ways that stores could shield themselves from trouble, such as avoiding putting merchandise by the door. Surveillance videos showed that most of the items stolen in flash robs were folded rather than on hangers, said association president John Chikow.

The NRF also says retailers, to discourage thefts, should position workers near key areas of the store and valuable merchandise.

Figuring out how to prevent criminal flash mobs is hard, in part because they are a new and little-studied phenomenon, said Read Hayes, a University of Florida research scientist who serves as director of the Loss Prevention Research Council, a group of more than 60 companies that examines theft trends.

“It is mob behavior but it has some pre-meditation which is a new thing,” Mr. Hayes said. “It’s still a sporadic thing when you consider the thousands of retail locations some of these chains have. But it’s pretty scary for employees, or any customers who happen to be in stores when this happens.”

Cleveland considered making it a crime to summon a flash mob via Facebook, Twitter and other social media, although the idea was shelved on rights grounds.

Sears Holdings Corp. wouldn’t comment on the Philadelphia-area flash-mob incident, which involved boys as young as 11 years old. Fifteen people were apprehended and charged with retail theft and conspiracy to commit robbery, according to a spokesman for police department in Upper Darby, Pa.

The 19-year-old suspected of organizing the flash mob pleaded guilty in September to misdemeanor shoplifting and conspiracy charges and was sentenced to two years’ probation.

Retail merchandise theft rose almost 8% last year to $27 billion, according to the preliminary results of a security study conducted by the University of Florida for the NRF. But security experts strongly discourage store employees from trying to intervene or stop shoplifters, due to the risk that it could turn violent. Some retailers, worried about both safety and liability, are so adamant about the policy that they have fired clerks who chased down shoplifters.

A group of 30 teens flooded a Maryland 7-Eleven in August, helping themselves to chips and other snacks. Police initially labeled the group a flash mob organized via cellphones, but it turned out the group plotted the deed while riding a city bus.

Technology did help track down the offenders: after police released surveillance footage to the media, many of the teens were identified by tipsters and apprehended.

The retailer subsequently sent its more than 6,000 stores a memo on how to handle flash mobs, reminding them of shoplifting-prevention basics such as a need to maintain low levels of cash and good visibility through store windows—and to call 911 should they see big groups forming outside.

“This seems to be a growing threat to retailers,” said a 7-Eleven spokeswoman.

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