Mob Mentality

Mob Mentality

Multiple-offender crimes are less flashy than felonious

’Tis the season to be jolly, especially if you’re a retailer. For most stores, the cash registers are ca-chinging more this month than they have all year. But, as the National Retail Federation warns, as much as now is the time when shoppers are walking those busy city sidewalks, it’s also high season for the criminal-minded and thus time to be on the lookout for those who are out to deck the malls with bouts of larceny, fa la la la laaaa, la la la la.

NRF is the world’s largest retail trade association, representing an industry that includes more than 3.6 million establishments. Of particular concern to the organization this holiday season is the disturbing trend of what it calls “multiple-offender crimes” or “criminal flash mob” activity.

These “flash robs,” as others have referred to the misdeeds, are the darker side of the relatively new phenomena known as flash mobs, a concept involving groups of people who organize via e-mail or social media and then assemble suddenly in a public place to perform an unusual and sometimes seemingly pointless act. Jazz hands and a spontaneous song in a food court or on a street corner are usually the result, and to that extent flash mobs are mostly innocuous, and often even fun. Not so flash robs, which deploy the same tactics but with a goal of wreaking havoc and leaving retailers hurting.

Noting an uptick this year in the occurrences of such criminal activity, NRF issued separate, pre-holiday white papers—one titled “Multiple-Offender Crimes: Preparing for and Understanding the Impact of Their Tactics,” the other “Effective Crowd Management: Guidelines on How to Maintain the Safety and Security of Your Customers, Employees and Store”—both of which describe what potential obstacles retailers are facing.

Rob ‘n’ Roll

“Multiple-offender crime incidents are groups or gangs, often teenagers, swarming a store and overwhelming store employees with their sheer number and speed,” the reports say. “Traditionally, these groups engage in grab-and-run scenarios where offenders quickly enter stores and target specific merchandise— such as high-end handbags, jewelry and designer clothing—then flee, sometimes to a waiting vehicle or, as was the case in several high-profile incidents, using mass transit. Criminal flash mobs engage in serious criminal behavior such as theft, assault, vandalism and burglary.”

According to a separate NRF survey, nearly one of 10 retailers says flash robbing has already happened to them. The association has been keeping track of occurrences of these flash crimes, which in 2011 were widespread, with instances reported nationwide on average more than monthly, from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles.

One vivid and representative example of flash robbing took place June 23, 2011, at a Sears store in downtown Philadelphia. According to police, 40 participants stormed the store, stealing thousands of dollars in sneakers, socks, watches and other items. Police apprehended 15 juveniles and one adult, all of whom were cited for retail theft and conspiracy.

“Some would argue these are modernday teen pranks, but in the case of multipleoffender crime activity, they are far from it,” NRF notes. “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.”

Flash Pointers

If you are a store owner concerned about the possibility of flash rob activity this holiday season (and if you’re not, you probably should be because, as trends go, this one’s not waning but rather growing in direct proportion to the rise of the social media used to plan the events), NRF offers some guidelines aimed at preventing such an incident. These include having your employees report directly to managers or loss prevention personnel whenever they notice unusually large gatherings of people inside or directly outside your store. The association also recommends monitoring social networks and websites for indications of a planned event and sharing such intelligence with law enforcement agencies and whatever security firm you have.

In the event such preventive measures don’t work and you find yourself facing a flash rob group, NRF has advice for what to do in the midst of one of the sudden strikes. Among other strategies, the association says to: attempt to discourage thefts by repositioning workers near key areas of the store and high-value merchandise; during the incident, take mental note of the offenders, including their physical description and clothing, and, immediately following the incident, document your observations; in worst-case scenarios, instruct employees and customers to retreat into a secure part of the store.

NRF notes that any video of the event can assist in the documentation process and should be readily available for law enforcement officials (following company protocols for release). The association cautions that apprehensions should be facilitated by authorized personnel only—and only when safe to do so, according to applicable corporate policy and state laws.

For a complete listing of the association’s guidelines, and to read more about specific instances of the flash rob activity sweeping the nation, visit Happy holidays!

This article originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of Security Today.

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