Retailers have been hit hard by the increasing spate of flash mob robberies occurring in major cities throughout the United States. Also referred to as a “flash mob theft,” this unique breed of theft has become a challenging crime for retail store owners to not only deal with, but also prevent.

Classified as a “Multiple Offender Crime” by the National Retail Federation, flash robs have posed the greatest safety threat to retailers, especially department stores, grocery stores and convenience marts. The earmarks of a typical flash rob are adolescents or young adults who raid storefronts and quickly steal as many products as they can get their hands on while outnumbering store employees, frightening patrons and creating pandemonium. Teens typically organize flash robs through Facebook and Twitter. 

Flash robs have gained considerable media attention in metropolitan cities like Portland, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Houston, Minneapolis, New York and Chicago. In April 2012, a Portland, Ore., convenience store became a victim to a flash rob as 15 to 20 people raided the store and began harassing the clerk and patrons. The employee ran out the store as the thieves were fleeing in an attempt to apprehend one of them. The situation turned violent as one of the suspects hit her repeatedly. The thieves then ran back into the store where another employee pepper-sprayed them. 

In 2011, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter issued an order for a 9 p.m. curfew on Fridays and Saturdays for teens under the age of 18 to curtail flash robberies. One notable incident occurred when a crowd of teens ran into a Sears store and stole several hundred dollars worth of items in a manner of minutes. Thankfully no one was hurt, but police believed that it was because no one tried to stop them or intervene once they entered the store.

(Read more about how Philadelphia businesses are handling flash mobs and protests while respecting the First Amendment in Security’s Pre-ASIS blog: Security and the First Amendment.)

The more disorderly the group is, the less likely it is that store personnel will be able to successfully intervene and apprehend the thieves. Joe LaRocca, Vice President of Loss Prevention at the National Retail Federation, recommends that security officers and management stand out of the way instead of trying to stop the thieves. Those who do attempt to chase and catch the thieves can further aggravate their efforts and prompt a violent response. Most importantly, listen, watch, take notes and let video surveillance do the work. High-quality video footage captured by your store’s surveillance cameras can serve as a critical evidentiary tool for law enforcement to identity the suspects and make an impending arrest. 

According to the 2011 Multiple Offender Crimes Report released by the National Retail Federation (NRF), the safety of employees and customers is of utmost importance during a flash rob. 

What can be gleaned from the NRF’s prevention tips is that:

  • Retailers and law enforcement agencies should always share information with each other if a flash rob is anticipated;
  • Social networking sites should be monitored when possible for any mention of a store’s name; and
  • Sightings of large groups congregating outside of a store should be reported to the store’s loss prevention officer(s). 

Stores without security officers should remain in constant contact with law enforcement to keep abreast of any flash robs that have occurred in the area. 

During a flash robbery, the NRF recommends spreading out your staff to make certain that all areas of the store are watched while the crime takes place. Guide patrons to a safe area of the store that isn’t in the pathway of the robbers.

Curtis Baillie, a Board Certified Security Consultant with more than 40 years of experience in law enforcement and security management operations, noted that flash robs usually tend to happen in the summer when adolescents aren’t in school or working.

“The number one thing I tell retailers is to train all of your employees to look out for the signs that something’s not right – like seeing a sudden influx of teens coming into your store,” he says. “First thing to do is close and lock your registers to make sure that you’re not going to have till robberies. The second thing to do, if you have a camera system, is to have cameras pointed at the front door and high-theft areas where they’ll be, and always try to call the police immediately.”

The safety of your employees and customers should always come first. Remain aware of local retail crimes and always be observant of who walks into your store. Invest in a high-resolution surveillance system that can be counted on to capture the faces of flash robbers so you can stay out of harm’s way.