Skip to content

Flash Mobs: An Emerging Threat to Retailers

08/11/2011 -  

Seventy-nine percent of retailers have been victims of multiple offender crime in the past year, according to a survey administered by the National Retail Federation (NRF). Ten percent were victims of flash mobs. Last month the NRF surveyed 106 companies to gauge the impact of multiple offender crimes in the wake of dozens of media reports of smash and grab operations orchestrated by teenagers against retail stores. Half of the respondents reported that they’d experienced two to five incidents involving multiple offenders in the past year.

These flash mobs, or flash robs as they’re sometimes called, involve large groups of people rushing a store at one time, running or making loud noises to distract staff or security, and grabbing what they can before exiting the store as quickly as they came. High-end items like handbags, jewelry and designer clothes are usually the targets, according to the NRF report. Because of the chaotic nature of the attack, suspects are able to make off with large amounts of merchandise.

Store owners in Washington, D.C. were being hit this spring, according to a Fox 5 report. Knowing that, the owner of G-Star Raw, in the Dupont Circle area of D.C., immediately called 911 when 19 teens poured into his store. The teens made off with $20,000 worth of merchandise in less than 10 minutes while he waited for police to arrive. And although violence is rare, there have been reports of store employees or customers being attacked during these incidents.

The survey results show flash robs are typically a young man’s game. Juvenile offenders were involved in 83 percent of cases. In 42 percent of the cases where participants were apprehended (apprehensions occurred in 50 percent of cases), social media or texting was the primary communication medium.

The NRF makes a couple of distinctions between multiple offender incidents and flash mobs. Regular flash mobs can be harmless and even humorous. The trend started in 2003 when 100 people, based on instructions in an email from “Bill,” descended on a Macy’s store in Manhattan. The group didn’t steal, but “the participants consulted bemused sales assistants about purchasing a ‘love rug’ for their ‘suburban commune,’"CNN reported. Since 2003, college students, comedy troupes, and random participants have spread the trend worldwide, acting out scenes from Shakespeare or having giant pillow fights before quickly dispersing.

Like multiple offender crimes, a flash mob is typically organized by mass text messages or social media, but most participants are strangers. Multiple offender crimes usually involve groups of juveniles who already know each other.

A flash mob is usually done to provide some kind of entertainment, the report says. But for flash robs, the consequences for both the offenders and retailers are serious - so serious that the NRF is calling for enhanced penalties for this type of crime.

“A gang of suspects conspiring to commit a crime inside the store, regardless of age, should be held fully accountable under the law for their criminal behavior. Given the premeditation, prosecutors should consider felony charges for the more serious offenders,” the report concludes.

An attachment at the end of the report provides tips to retailers on preventing a multiple offender attack, what to do while one is in progress, and how to react after one happens.

photo bymattwi1s0n from flickr