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Retailers Increasingly Worried About ‘Flash Robs’

NATIONAL REPORT — Retailers this holiday season are preparing to protect themselves against a new group of unwanted visitors: swarms of teenagers and young adults who plot via Twitter, phone texts and Facebook to descend on stores and steal merchandise. While flash mobs can entertain, the threat of coordinated shoplifting is a concern, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Law enforcement officials call them “flash robs,” a criminal incarnation of the “flash mob” phenomenon in which participants use social media to organize impromptu gatherings, from dances in shopping malls to uprisings in the Middle East, the report stated.

In Washington, D.C., surveillance cameras caught a group of 10 young women streaming into a convenience store in August and making off with bags of snacks. Similar incidents have broken out in Cleveland, Las Vegas and St. Paul, Minn., among other places.

The National Retail Federation (NRF) said flash-mob attacks were reported by 10 percent of the 106 retailers it surveyed in July, a group that included department stores and big-box chains, as well as grocery and drugstore operators. Security personnel or police nabbed suspects in about half the cases, according to the survey, which examined crimes involving more than one perpetrator. Several incidents resulted in injuries, the NRF survey found.

For the first time, the trade association included advice for handling flash mobs in its recommendations to members about controlling crowds during big events. Among other things, the NRF is urging retailers and police to monitor social networks and websites for indications that groups will be descending on a store. In addition, workers should alert managers or loss-prevention workers when they see unusually large gatherings of people inside or directly outside the stores.

In Chicago, the Greater North Michigan Avenue Association, a local merchants group, organized meetings between retailers and police, who pointed out ways that stores could shield themselves from trouble, such as avoiding putting merchandise by the door. The NRF also advised retailers to position workers near key areas of the store and valuable merchandise.

Figuring out how to prevent criminal flash mobs is hard, though, in part because they are a new and little-studied phenomenon, said Read Hayes, a University of Florida research scientist who serves as director of the Loss Prevention Research Council, a group of more than 60 companies that examines theft trends.

“It is mob behavior. But it has some pre-meditation, which is a new thing,” Hayes said. “It’s still a sporadic thing when you consider the thousands of retail locations some of these chains have. But it’s pretty scary for employees, or any customers who happen to be in stores when this happens.”

A group of 30 teens flooded a Maryland 7-Eleven in August, helping themselves to chips and other snacks. Police initially labeled the group as a flash mob organized via cellphones, but it turned out that the group plotted the deed while riding a city bus.

Technology helped track down the offenders: after police released surveillance footage to the media, many of the teens were identified by tipsters and apprehended.

7-Eleven subsequently sent its more than 6,000 stores a memo on how to handle flash mobs, reminding them of shoplifting-prevention basics such as a need to maintain low levels of cash and good visibility through store windows—and to call 911 should they see big groups forming outside.

“This seems to be a growing threat to retailers,” a 7-Eleven spokeswoman said.