Fraud in the Retail Industry on the Rise
What to do if You are "Hit on" at Work

Social Media Used by Flash Mobs to Rip Off Retail Establishments

Flash Mobs Threaten Retail Industry

My last blog addressed the issue of retail fraud on the rise. Retailers are facing a new threat this holiday season: swarms of teenagers and young adults who plot via Twitter, phone texts and Facebook to descend on stores and steal merchandise. They gather in masses, organized through social media or during large events to shock and stop witnesses in their tracks. But these aren't satirical flash mobs — they're planned heists, and they're gaining momentum in youth circles across the country.

Stores in cities from St. Paul, Minn., to Las Vegas and Washington, have been the first to experience this frightening — and dangerous — new trend, which has developed in part because of the growing popularity of flash mobs, or large gatherings in public places, which often include unusual acts or choreographed dances. Like flash mobs, flash robs involve a large group of people suddenly appearing – except their intent is to steal. They can be organized over the Internet, using social media like Twitter, or planned at some sort of large gathering.  

A flash rob occurs when a large group of young people swarms a store, grabs as much merchandise as they can carry and runs off within minutes, leaving shopkeepers stunned and with losses in the thousands. Ironically, flash robbers who, one would think, want to remain anonymous get caught on security cameras, become fodder for YouTube, and have helped authorities identify and catch some of the perpetrators.

Last April a brazen robbery occurred in broad daylight in Washington, D.C. at a Dupont Circle men's store. Surveillance video from the G-Star Raw store on Connecticut Avenue shows more than a dozen teenagers rushing in, overwhelming customers and employees. They ended up walking away with more than $20,000 worth of merchandise.

"It's very disturbing when you witness a robbery because you’re upset, but there is nothing you can do,” says Dannia Hakki, who was in the store when the flash mob robbery occurred. "I was casually shopping, looking through some shirts. I saw about five kids come on in and they looked like they were doing the same thing. All of a sudden, three or four of them grabbed a bulk of 10 jackets each." She says security at the store was on break at the time. "They just literally bolted out of the door. It was very quick. The shopkeepers seemed kind of stunned. They didn’t really know what to do,” said Hakki.

The National Retail Federation says that flash-mob attacks were reported by 10% of the 106 retailers it surveyed in July, a group that included department stores and big-box chains, as well as grocery and drug-store 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 survey found.

For the first time the trade association included advice for handling flash mobs in its recommendations to its 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 my last blog I addressed the issue of fraud in the retail industry. It’s a growing problem and now we can add flash robs to the mix. I believe the problem will get worse before it gets better because of our historically high and persistent unemployment rate and increasing desperateness of some in society.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on October 31, 2011