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‘Flash mob’ robberies roiling U.S. retailers, traumatizing workers

UPDATED: Fri., Dec. 3, 2021

A security guard, right, stands Thursday at the entrance to a Nordstrom department store at the Grove mall in Los Angeles where a smash-and-grab robbery took place recently.  (Associated Press)
A security guard, right, stands Thursday at the entrance to a Nordstrom department store at the Grove mall in Los Angeles where a smash-and-grab robbery took place recently. (Associated Press)
By Abha Bhattarai </p><p>and Gerrit De Vynck Washington Post

A spate of brazen store heists, in which organized mobs have hit stores as varied as Nordstrom, Best Buy, Louis Vuitton and Home Depot, has shaken the retail industry and created fresh challenges for law enforcement.

While large-scale “smash-and-grabs” have been on the rise this year, experts say they hit critical mass in late November, when stores were piled high with holiday inventory. On Black Friday alone, a crew of eight made off with $400 worth of sledgehammers, crowbars and hammers from a Home Depot in Lakewood, California; a group ransacked a Bottega Veneta boutique in Los Angeles; and roughly 30 people swarmed a Best Buy near Minneapolis, grabbing up electronics.

Retail executives and security experts say the rise of such robberies – which have gone viral online and in some cases, spurred copycats – is the culmination of several factors, including a shortage of security guards, reluctance by police and prosecutors to pursue shoplifting offenses, and the growing use of social media as an organizational tool. They also coincide with a pullback from pandemic-era protocols that limited the number of people who could enter a store at one time.

The incidents have spooked workers, retailers say, as they can involve dozens of people swarming in with crowbars, guns and other weapons, and breaking glass. Some have resulted in injuries: Two Nordstrom employees were assaulted and one was pepper-sprayed Nov. 20 after an estimated 80 people rushed the Walnut Creek, California, store.

Best Buy chief executive Corie Barry said the high-profile events have made it more difficult to hire staff, particularly in shoplifting hot spots along the West Coast.

“This is a real issue that hurts and scares real people,” she said during an earnings call last week. “This is traumatizing for our associates and is unacceptable.”

It also exposes the limitations of security mainstays like cameras, electronic tags and even a well-positioned security guard, which might deter a shoplifter but have little efficacy against an unruly crowd.

Law enforcement officials say social media is increasingly playing a role in the organization and promotion of such events. Several recent store robberies in the San Francisco area, including at Burberry, Bloomingdale’s, Yves Saint Laurent, Walgreens and Fendi, were likely organized on social media apps, said Fran Clader, director of communications for the California Highway Patrol, which has a task force dedicated to investigating organized retail theft.

She said the agency has investigated similar incidents in which the thieves didn’t know one another in advance.

“The crimes in those cases were organized by a specific suspect that used a social media messaging application to plan and execute the offense,” she said.

Videos of the coordinated mass robberies – showing people running out of stores with goods, jumping into cars and speeding off, as well as footage of police chasing and arresting suspected thieves – have gone viral on TikTok, YouTube and other social media platforms in recent weeks. Such content could be inspiring “copycat” thefts around the country, though it’s hard to know for sure because the FBI doesn’t collect specific data on these kinds of crimes, said Scott Decker, a professor emeritus of criminology at Arizona State University.

It’s likely the crimes were organized via messaging apps or email, but not in an extremely structured way, he said, with plans being passed to different people who may not know each other in the real world.

“It’s the organizing capability of the internet that I think is really attractive to offenders,” said Decker, who studies mass burglaries. “Is this the start of a new trend or copycat offending?”

“Flash mob” thefts have been pervasive in California as well as Chicago, where some prosecutors have stopped pursuing shoplifting cases under $1,000, said Jeff Zisner, chief executive of workplace security firm Aegis. Three-quarters of U.S. retailers reported an increase in organized crime last year, according to the National Retail Federation. The trade group says such shoplifting incidents cost retailers an average $700,000 for every $1 billion in sales.

Last month, large groups ransacked luxury stores throughout the San Francisco area. There were similar incidents in other parts of the state, including two Nordstrom stores in the Los Angeles area, an Apple store in Santa Rosa, and a Lululemon store in San Jose.

California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom said this week that shoplifters should be prosecuted and vowed to “significantly increase … efforts to go after these retail rings.” He also said he would ramp up police presence along highways and retail corridors. And though the state typically classifies thefts under $950 as misdemeanors instead of felonies, Newsom urged local law enforcement officials to be more forceful in going after organized retail crime.

“If people are breaking in, people stealing your property, they need to be arrested,” he said Wednesday. “Police need to arrest them. Prosecutors need to prosecute them. Judges need to hold people accountable for breaking the law. These are not victimless crimes, and I have no empathy for these criminal elements.”

Barry, of Best Buy, said the company is locking up high-value products and hiring extra security guards. A spokeswoman for Nordstrom, which has been a frequent target, said the chain is positioning security guards both in and outside of its stores, and it is partnering with mall security and law enforcement to anticipate risks.

“Dealing with run-of-the-mill shoplifting is like whack-a-mole where you’re going after individuals after they commit a crime,” Zisner said. “But with something like this – where it’s 50 people against one security guard – requires long-term policies.”

Retailers, he said, increasingly are requesting additional security guards and retired police officers, though a shortage of available workers has made it difficult to fill demand. Stores are also looking for new ways to deter theft, starting with bright lights and conspicuously placed security cameras in parking lots.

“It’s a perfect storm of opportunity that folks are clearly exploiting,” Zisner said. “Historically we’d only see this at high-end stores where you could pick up a few things and be out with $5,000 worth of stuff, but now it’s even happening at Home Depot.”

The home improvement giant has been seeing an increase in organized retail crime for several years, said Home Depot spokeswoman Christina Cornell. As a result, the chain also has begun locking up high-dollar items and is working with Stanley Black & Decker developing a pilot program that blocks the ability to turn on certain power tools unless they’ve gone through proper check-out protocols.

“The value of any product is in its ability to work correctly – and if these products aren’t purchased properly, they just won’t work,” Cornell said. “That’s the next natural step here: figuring out where this stuff goes and preventing it from being valuable to resellers.”

Most items are quickly sold off online, on platforms such as eBay and Facebook Marketplace, where it’s easy to remain anonymous, security experts said. But they say the Internet has contributed to the rise of theft in other ways by allowing would-be offenders to coordinate efforts and share footage.

Even Congress and federal law enforcement authorities have taken note. A bill introduced in the House this fall would require e-commerce marketplaces, such as Amazon and eBay, to verify the identities of third-party merchants that sell more than $5,000 worth of goods a year. The FBI is also collaborating with retailers to curb large-scale thefts in stores.

“We can’t arrest or prosecute our way out of this,” said Barbara Staib, a spokeswoman for the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention. “We need to change our approach.”

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