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Illustration by Security Management

Rash of Swarming, Snatch-and-Run Incidents Hits High-End Retailers

Call it a flash rob: On Saturday in Walnut Creek, California, just outside San Francisco, approximately 80 people perpetrated a coordinated attack on a Nordstrom department store just before it closed at 9:00 p.m. A reporter from the local NBC affiliate saw dozens of people swarm the store, armed with crowbars and various other weapons, snatch merchandise, and run to approximately 25 cars, which were lined up in front of the store to effectuate a quick exit.

A statement from the Walnut Creek Police Department said it was “investigating what was clearly a planned event,” and noted that police had arrested three people near the scene. In another advisory released on Sunday, Walnut Creek Police said the department is “actively monitoring intelligence that indicates the group of thieves who stole from the Broadway Plaza Nordstrom last night are considering similar activity later today. This has not been confirmed, but out of an abundance of caution, we’re alerting businesses and residents to be prepared. The PD is calling out additional officers and reserves, and some stores may consider closing early or taking other precautions. There is no specific time or target known right now. More info to follow as we know more.”

The incident is one of several recent incidents in the San Francisco area in which looting-style tactics—a swarming form of grab-and-run theft—on high-end stores in the San Francisco area. On Friday night at least 10 stores in San Francisco’s posh Union Square shopping district experienced break-ins and theft of more than $1 million in merchandise, and on Sunday a group smashed glass cabinets and stole merchandise from a mall jewelry store.

The San Francisco Chronicle interviewed Jim Dudley, a criminal justice lecturer at San Francisco State University and a retired San Francisco police officer. Dudley said the incidents “seem to be coordinated, with tools, lookouts, vehicles for getaway, and swarming tactics used by criminals with intent to plunder.”

San Francisco is not the only city dealing with this style of flash rob attacks. Stretching from late last month into early this month, the Chicago area experienced a rash of similar thefts and robberies. In Oak Brook, Illinois, “at least 14 people forced their way into a Louis Vuitton store… and made off with at least $100,000 in merchandise. …Surveillance video from the store… shows the chaotic scene as the masked shoplifters pour into the store grabbing handbags and other merchandise while shoppers rush out of the way.”

The Oak Brook incident occurred after a similar incident in the nearby area of Northbrook, Illinois, in which another Louis Vuitton store lost $66,000 worth of merchandise to thieves.

These swarming, flash rob tactics are adding to the growing problem of organized retail crime, or ORC. Statistics from the National Retail Federation showed that ORC has been rising for years. Data from 2020, the most recent released, showed organized criminal activity cost retailers more than $700,000 for every $1 billion in sales. In the study, six in 10 retailers said ORC is a higher priority now than five years ago, and more than half reported that ORC tactics are becoming more and more aggressive.

“First and foremost our priority is the safety of our employees and the customers in the store,” Rachel Michelin, president of the California Retailers Association, said in an October 2021 interview with Security Management. “We don’t know the backgrounds of some of these folks coming in and committing these crimes. So we don’t ever want to put our employees or put our customers in harm’s way at all. That’s why you typically see a lot of retailers saying it’s better to let someone go than to have someone hurt or injured.”

While these recent incidents have targeted high-end retailers, the growth in theft and robbery includes other retailers as well. The National Retail Federation and others says the risk versus reward calculus has changed. In the past two decades, California and other jurisdictions have risen the felony theft dollar threshold. Two of the four key findings they report from the ORC survey address the topic:

  • The issue of ORC is continuing to grow: Among ORC victims, three in four report an increase in the past year. Retailers believe the increase in ORC-related incidents may be a result of changing laws and penalties for shoplifting.
  • Many states have increased the threshold of what constitutes a felony, which has had the unintended consequence of allowing criminals to steal more without being afraid of stronger penalties related to felony charges. Nearly two-thirds of retailers report that they have seen an increase in the average ORC case value in these states.

However, at least one study from Pew found no relation between raising felony theft thresholds had no impact on property crime rates. That study only looked at jurisdictions that raised the threshold from 2000 to 2010 and was published in 2017 when crime statistics were declining.