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New Threat Arises in a Flash

​TEN PERCENT OF retailers have been victims of multiple-offender crimes using “flashmob” tactics, according to a survey of multiple-offender crimes that was conducted this July by the National Retail Federation (NRF). The survey, which asked about experiences during the preceding 12-months, also found that half of those hit had been victimized two to five times.

Ill-intentioned flash mobs are a perverse twist on a social networking phenomenon that began as a way for people to gather to spontaneously have whimsical harmless fun. The harmless version of the flashmob trend started in 2003 when 100 people, based on instructions in an e-mail from someone called “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.

The malicious version of flash mobs, or flash robs as they’re sometimes called, begin when many participants rush a store at one time. Then they run or make loud noises to distract staff or security and grab what they can before exiting the store as quickly as they came. Because of the chaotic nature of the attack, suspects are often able to make off with large amounts of merchandise. High-end items like handbags, jewelry, and designer clothes are the most popular targets, according to the NRF report. A flash mob is typically organized by mass text messages or social media, but most participants are strangers. By contrast, other multiple-offender crimes usually involve groups of juveniles who already know each other and they may or may not use social media to set up the meeting time and place.

The survey found that 79 percent of respondents reported being a victim of some type of multiple-offender crime. Flash mobs that gather to commit crimes have become a growing subset of multiple- offender crimes.

The survey found that flash robs were typically a young man’s game. Male juvenile offenders were involved in 83 percent of cases. In 42 percent of the multiple-offender cases where participants were caught (apprehensions occurred in 50 percent of cases), social media or texting was the primary communication medium.

“In addition to the financial losses and safety concerns, multiple-offender crimes disrupt the normal flow of business for retailers and shopping centers and create significant safety concerns,” notes the report. They can frighten honest customers, and while mostly nonviolent, they can quickly degenerate to physical violence, notes the report. In one case in St. Paul, Minnesota, a store cashier was repeatedly punched in the face.

The NRF is calling for stronger criminal penalties for those involved in flash mobs to drive home the point that this is not a harmless youthful indiscretion or game. “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.

Lawmakers in Montgomery County, Maryland, are attempting to introduce legislation that would target crimes committed by mobs. The proposal comes just weeks after a group of 30 youths walked into a local 7-Eleven and stole $450 worth of items in a matter of minutes.

An attachment at the end of the NRF 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. Among the advice: retailers should monitor social networks for indications of flash-mob plans, share intelligence with other organizations, train staff to alert store security if they see suspicious groups immediately outside or inside the store, and to preserve evidence after any incident.