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'Flash robs' use Twitter to organize crime

Patrik JonssonThe Christian Science Monitor

A message goes out over Twitter and suddenly hordes of young people appear in a store and start stealing thousands of dollars’ worth of merchandise. Then, as quickly as they came, they disappear.

It’s happened in cities from Las Vegas to South Orange, N.J. – a criminal twist on the “flash mobs” phenomenon in which people use social-media websites to organize instant political events, massive snowball fights, or insurrections in the Middle East.

Police are on the alert. “We have to knock this out,” incoming Chi­cago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said recently after several major stores, including The North Face and Filene’s Basement, were hit by “flash robs” along the city’s Miracle Mile shopping district, raising concerns that tourists might begin to avoid the areas.

For a growing number of marginalized youth in urban America – especially young black men, who have been the hardest hit by America’s economic troubles – flash robs have become a way to feel powerful, some social-justice experts say. For others, they could be a new outlet for Internet-age thrill-seekers.

But social media is clearly becoming a new tool for crime, and flash robs are simply one of the newest mutations.

“The fascinating thing about technology is that once we open the door, it’s going to move in ways that we can’t always predict and are slow to control, because we are reacting rather than [being] proactive,” says Scott Decker, a criminal justice professor at Arizona State University in Tempe.

An ongoing Arizona State survey about how criminals use social media indicates that about 10 in 300 convicted criminals interviewed have used Twitter and other social media to organize drug deals and gang warfare.

But its use in flash robs has gained the attention of law enforcement in recent months. In some cases, the use of social media to organize the crime has been established, in others the rapid arrival and dispersal of the crowds have had all the earmarks of a “flash mob,” even if police haven’t confirmed the circumstances.

•In Washing­ton, D.C., a group of thieves robbed a Victoria’s Secret in a 20-second raid that police believe was organized on social media.

•In Upper Darby, Pa., a group of 30 to 40 teenagers, police say, organized via social media to rob and pillage a Sears store in June, making off with thousands of dollars’ worth of goods. About half of those involved have been apprehended.

•In Philadelphia, a group of 100 teenagers that has been described as a flash mob in media reports attacked a group of pedestrians near a downtown subway station on June 25, putting one of the victims, an editor at the satirical newspaper The Onion, in the hospital with a broken leg.

•In the Streeterville neighborhood of Chicago, flash mobs were implicated in several incidents in June, including one in which a man was knocked off his bike and beaten as youths made off with his camera and cellphone.

•In Las Vegas, a group of 35 people robbed a convenience store in May. “It became a feeding frenzy,” City Stop owner Jon Athey told local KLAS-TV. “They were in the store for three minutes and 30 seconds.… It’s a pretty scary thing.”

Observers are careful not to overplay the rise of flash robs: Youth crime rates have continued to drop in the United States. But the trend is worrisome. Organized hits of retailers – which include but are not limited to flash robs – have increased during the past three years, with 95 percent of 129 major retailers saying they’d been victimized by organized criminals since 2010, according to a survey by the National Retail Federation. The survey did not have any data on flash robs alone.

The ease of moving stolen goods online has contributed to the uptick, retailers say. So has the economy, which has hit young black men particularly hard. “For once in their life they have a sense of power that says, ‘I’m willing to stand up to the system,’ ” says Phillip Jack­son, founder of the Million Father March, in Chicago. “It takes a mob mentality in order to get that courage, and the larger the mob, the more courage and sometimes the more heinous the crime.”

While disaffected black youths appear to be one driver of flash robs, they are not the only participants. In some of the convenience store flash robs, teenagers who apparently have enough money for an iPhone and a data plan may not need to steal a bag of chips.

Instead, some tech-savvy teenagers might simply be out for notoriety, knowing full well that the acts are being captured on video that’s likely to be uploaded to YouTube, says Professor Decker of Arizona State.

“Certainly, YouTube has become the bragging board [of our time],” he says. “Every guy who beats somebody up, every gang has got YouTube videos.”In this way, flash robs raise questions about whether new technology is introducing new people to criminal behavior and, potentially, violence.

“The question is, are people currently engaged in street crime discovering the technology and adapting it … or are these new groups that are moving into street crime facilitated by the existence of social media?” Decker asks.

Either way, flash robs show a “dark side” of social media, says Sean Varano, a criminal justice professor at Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I.“We can look at the G8 summits and the anarchy movements that have adopted some of these technology strategies – and the Vancouver riots in the aftermath of the Stanley Cup – there was a social media dimension to that,” he says. “Maybe there’s a diffusion effect here where slowly these ideas are [becoming more widespread] and people are becoming more attuned to the technology and how to exploit it.”

This presents potential challenges to law enforcement. “Do these groups represent criminal enterprises … in which case it’s not unreasonable to assume that these might amount to federal crimes,” he asks.

Moreover, flash robs could sharpen racial stereotypes in troublesome ways. “The first time a group of young kids of color walk into a store, the clerk assumes it’s a flash rob, and now you’ve got racial profiling that emerges,” adds Mr. Varano. “It’s not unreasonable to assume that this is a very slippery slope.”