The videos, captured by in-store surveillance cameras and replayed on websites like YouTube, are growing in numbers. Groups of youths – one or two at first, and then more – walk into a store. They browse at first, then head straight for merchandise, ignoring employees and grabbing whatever suits their fancy.
Caught off-guard as incidents like these develop, store employees call 911 or mall security when they can. They might also put themselves in harm’s way by shouting, trying to drive the offenders out or locking the door.
But until official assistance arrives, the employees are helpless to stop what law enforcement and loss prevention professionals call multiple-offender crimes. It covers two categories of retail crime: teen flash robs, sometimes pre-meditated, but also often spontaneous and opportunistic; and smash and grabs, where mobs break windows or run into a store and grab merchandise, then flee.
Multi-offender crimes happen all the time, says Joseph LaRocca, senior asset protection advisor to NRF, “but until last summer they haven’t captured much media attention.”
Like organized retail crime, multiple-offender crimes can be misdiagnosed as ordinary shoplifting or extensions of street crimes. But multiple-offender crimes deserve as much security attention as ORC, LaRocca says.
The mobs are not partial to the types of stores they attack, going after small independent retailers with few employees and chain big-box, department, grocery and convenience stores.
Flash rob incidents can be identified and treated as retail crimes; like ORC, however, they are difficult to link, making them harder to deal with as a common threat that crosses city and state lines and retail formats.
In one incident last July, about 20 teens entered Mildblend Supply Co., an upscale clothing store in the trendy Wicker Park section of Chicago. Within four minutes, the group had stripped the store of more than $3,000 in merchandise, most in the form of $200 jeans.
Candise Cho, who owns the store with her husband Luke, describes the teens as “marching ants coming in. Not a good scene.” It took a few seconds for what was about to happen to register, and then Luke Cho locked the door.
A surveillance video caught teens milling around the store and rummaging through stacks of jeans. At least one can be seen stuffing a pair of jeans into his backpack.
“They knew what they wanted and went straight for it,” Luke says.
As one staffer called 911, Candise, near the door and pressed against it, tried to reason with the teens. She and a nearby co-worker were both in real danger of being crushed, but her words may have helped calm the younger teens.
“We gave them an opportunity to go and one kid did leave,” she says. “Then things escalated.”
As kids pillaged the merchandise, other members of the group pushed into the Chos and their employees — some of the staff, including, Candise, received cuts and bruises. “I couldn’t even get out of the way,” she says. “I was so pinned by the door.”
After one teen managed to unlock the door, the camera shows the group filing out, taking advantage of a large street fair to melt into the crowd. That same fair kept police from getting to the store for about 30 minutes because local streets had been shut down.
“There were crowds right in front of our store,” says Candise, “and the stage was only about 250 feet away. The streets were jam-packed, but no one was paying any attention to us. We did the best we could.”
In another July incident, some 300 teens burst into a Walmart in Jacksonville, Fla., and staged what seemed to have been a pre-meditated “rave,” laughing, yelling, dancing in the aisles, stealing merchandise and using smartphones and tablets to film themselves.
According to a police report, an electronic anti-shoplifting security scanner priced around $1,500 was destroyed, snacks and sodas were stolen and there were reports of gunshots outside.
The month before, an Albertsons grocery store in Troutdale, Ore., was vandalized by 30 to 40 teens who stormed the aisles, picking up produce and other items and throwing them around the store.
Among those arrested was a 15-year-old boy who went behind a Starbucks kiosk, swiped the keys to the cash register and tried to pry it loose. He was captured in the act on the store’s surveillance footage, which was broadcast on local TV news.
That same month, some 14 Philadelphia teens walked into a Sears in Upper Darby, Pa., stealing thousands of dollars worth of merchandise, according to Upper Darby Police Superintendent Michael Chitwood.
“Store security notified 911 right away,” Chitwood says, “so police responded and caught them within 15 minutes, some still coming out of the store, others making their way back to public transportation.” Only one adult was in the group; many were under 16, including some 12-year-olds.
In a poll conducted last year by NRF, 79 percent of retailers nationwide reported being the victim of multi-offender crimes. While there are distinct differences in how the mobs — organized or spontaneous — attack, “multiple-offender crimes can involve serious criminal behavior including assault, theft and vandalism,” LaRocca says.
“In addition to the financial losses they cause companies, multiple-offender crimes disrupt the normal flow of business ... and create significant safety concerns.”
Police and retailers who have been victimized have begun using social media to ask for the public’s help in catching the criminals, often posting videos of the incidents on sites like YouTube, as the Chos did.
Almost two months after the Mildblend surveillance video went up on YouTube, Candise Cho says she and her husband are “happy with the results.” Arrests have begun and most of the teens have been identified.
More importantly, some have returned what they had taken and one called to apologize. Except for a few, most were young minors, says Candise, who speculated that they may have been psychologically nudged toward stealing “because they were part of a mob.”
A few older kids, she adds, seemed to dominate and to signal when to start and when to leave. “They were mostly kids who didn’t think through what they were doing.”