‘Flash robs’ create new challenge to retailers

Just as Twitter, face book and other social networking sites have allowed dissidents to plot the overthrow of dictators in the Middle East, groups of criminals are utilising these tools to plan coordinated thefts from stores in the USA.

`Flash mobs’ was the term given to groups of people who communicated via the internet to create harmless if strange activities such as all standing on one leg in unison outside a subway station. The mob would then disperse peacefully and there was an element of intrigue and fun to the event.

But `Flash robs’ are far from fun and have a sinister criminal intent. Flash robs are reported to be swarms of teenagers and young adults who plot via Twitter, phone texts and facebook to descend on stores together and steal any valuable  merchandise they can get their hands on.  They then disperse before the Police or security can apprehend them.

The use of new media and communications devices to organise robbing sprees was underlined during the recent riots in England when criminals were using Blackberries and FaceBook to organise mobs to break in and loot shops.

Though information is scant as to the identities of the flash rob members, it is believed that these groups maintain contact via social networking and do meet on occasions to plan upcoming robberies. They are wary of sharing personal information to avoid undercover police or informers and may be members of criminal gangs. According to media reports, such “flash rob” incidents have occurred this year in Cleveland, Chicago, Las Vegas, Boston, Philadelphia and St. Paul as well as in Canada.
The National Retail Federation monitors such activity and said those most at threat were department stores and big-box chains, as well as grocery and drugstore operators. Those that have experienced a flash rob, sales assistants and other shoppers, have been intimidated by the antics of the mob as they seek to disorientate people as they grab merchandise before fleeing. The National Retail Federation has published a white paper on the problem and issued the following advice for retailers:

  • As with other crimes, retailers, mall security and law enforcement agencies should continue to share intelligence about anticipated incidents.
  • Sales assistants should report to store management or Loss Prevention whenever they see unusually large gatherings of people inside or directly outside the stores.
  • If safe to do so, use customer service techniques to discourage crime activity.
  • Attempt to discourage the thefts by re-positioning associates near key areas of the store and high-value merchandise.
  • Instruct employees and customers to retreat into a secure part of the store.
  • Any CCTV video of the event can assist in the documentation process and should be readily available for law enforcement officials (following company protocols for release).

Monitoring of the internet
It is recommended that all retailers which may be at threat should create Business Intelligence program to monitor social networks and websites for indications of a planned event at their outlets. The program should include tracking the brand names and locations of the outlets with a daily report to update management as to any issues.

The program should regularly be reviewed for any changing trends as well as monitoring national media for reports on flash rob incidents. Use of free services such as Google or Yahoo alerts is a start but other sources should be used including Factiva and other contacts recommended by the National Retail Federation.

Information sharing with local law enforcement agencies is an imperative as they may already have intelligence on these mobs as well as able to deploy officers to apprehend the mob and arrest them for organised theft and larceny.