You might remember back ten or so years ago when flash mobs were all the rage. A large group of “conspirators” preplanned an event at a crowded venue – for example at Grand Central Station in New York City or a large mall in Los Angeles – and delighted the crowd with a choregraphed dance or impromptu theater.  Such events were a welcome respite to the hustle and bustle of the city.

We still have flash mob events, but now they are far more nefarious. Across the country, mobs – sometimes only a few people, sometimes many – are invading retail stores and grabbing the merchandise.  Southern California is one of the hotbeds for this crime. Just a few weeks ago a group of five to ten thieves took off with at least $100,000 worth of merchandise from a Gucci store in South Coast Plaza. The suspects wore hoodies and masks and after grabbing the merchandise in a matter of minutes fled on foot to waiting get-away vehicles. Fortunately, no one was injured in the robbery.

Southern California, especially Los Angeles, has been plagued with flash mob robberies.  These robberies are planned and well-organized.  The robberies are often planned online via social media or other internet communications. At one flash mob event—a robbery of a Nordstrom in Los Angeles—more than 30 people were involved. All were masked, making it harder to identify the suspects. Witnesses reported that the thieves tore the store apart, broke glass cases, and made off with more than $300,000 in merchandise.  Of the many flash mob robberies, plausibly involving hundreds of suspects, only a handful of flash mob thieves have been arrested.

It is fortunate that these robberies, while violent and aggressive, and psychological distressing to the store employees and customers who are in the store, have not been associated with physical injuries. Generally, the thieves enter the store, grab as much merchandise as they can, and make a hasty exit. The stolen merchandise ends up on the underground market where it is sold at a cut-rate price. Many people buy this merchandise because they want a “deal” even though they know it is stolen merchandise.  The National Retail Federation estimates that these incidents are costing retailers $700,000 for every $1 billion in sales. The cost of this sales loss is borne by us all as it passed on to the consumer in the way of higher prices.

The flash mob robberies pose a dilemma for retailers and law enforcement. The robberies are often sudden and random and are completed before the police even arrive. Los Angeles County is attempting to address the growing problem by the creation of newly formed task force. Orange County is also searching for effective measures to address these robberies. But realistically, how is that to be done? Even if law enforcement intelligence units were able to infiltrate the social media groups planning these robberies, the thieves will find another social media venue where they can carry on. And because the robberies happen so quickly, it is not practical to expect law enforcement to respond in time.

How are the retailers to respond? There are no obvious practical solutions. Screening customers before they can enter a store or a mall is not realistic. These flash mobs aren’t going to stop to go through screening, they will barge right past the security.  Better security and security surveillance will be of little use when you have a masked mob enter and ransack the store in a matter of minutes.  One solution that occurs to me, is that the retailers display only one item of the expensive merchandise, with the rest securely locked in a safe or other secure location.  But perhaps that too is not practical. Maybe law enforcement could focus on the other end of these robberies and crack down hard on the sale of stolen merchandise, including arresting those who buy the merchandise.

The good kind of flash mob of the last decade was a passing fad. Hopefully these bad kinds of flash mobs will fade in time as well.

For 30 years, Orange County criminal defense attorney William Weinberg has defended those accused of a crime. If you are being investigated or have been charged with a criminal offense, Mr. Weinberg is available for a complimentary consultation to discuss your matter. You may contact him at his Irvine office at 949-474-9700 or by emailing him at bill@williamweinberg.com.