4 steps retailers can take to combat flash robs

News about large crowds of organized thieves is popping up in the headlines. But should retailers really worry and prepare?

As the start of holiday shopping season kicks off, retailers know they will no doubt deal with inevitable amounts of theft this year, particularly in a difficult economy. But this season, news of a phenomenon known as flash robbing is putting a new twist on smash-and-grab tactics.

The National Retail Federation says the trend of flash mobbing, or using social networks such as Twitter and Facebook to organize en masse and get together in one place, has taken on a nefarious form called flash robbing.

Flash robs, technically known as multiple-offender crimes, occur when a group of people coordinate to overcrowd a retail outlet and steal items by overwhelming staff with their numbers and speed. According to a poll the NRF conducted among retailers around the country, over three-quarters (79 percent) of retailers report being a victim of a multiple-offender crime in the past 12 months, some of these incidents (10 percent) have involved so-called flash mob tactics.

Earlier this month, a crowd of youths in Maryland, some estimate as many as 50, made headlines when they flash robbed a 7-Eleven in Silver Springs, the third time such an incident has happened in that area this year.

Also see: Organized crime and retail theft facts and myths

But crowds getting together to steal is nothing new, according to J.R. Roberts of J.R. Roberts Security Strategies. Roberts said flash robs, known also as swarming, have been utilized for decades, often by traveling groups of people, gangs or transients seeking to steal as means of livelihood.

"It's not a new practice to use large groups of people to distract staff and try and take material that way," said Roberts. "What is new is the social media aspect of it, which computerizes flash contact."

What's also changed is the motivation and items being stolen, said Roberts.

"In the past swarming was typically used to pluck off high-end items. What we see now is the social component, the fun or excitement, of stealing in these flash robs."

But Pat Murphy, president of LPT Security Consulting, believes the hype over flash robs is misplaced and a few incidents do not a trend make.

"I'm not seeing the pattern the media is trying to create," he said. "It makes great news when 50 kids come and try and smash-and-grab at a 7-Eleven, but they are not doing that in department stores or jewelry stores as the media would have you think."

And Murphy takes issue with the NRF report on the flash-robbing issue because some multiple offender crime examples referenced in their data include as few as three people involved in the crime. Three people does not comprise a flash rob, he argued.

"I don't think it a fair connection," said Murphy.

Also see: Retail security: Critical strategies

Both Roberts and Murphy agree that, while the chances of being hit by a flash rob are small, it makes sense for retailers to be discussing the possibility of such scenarios with staff. And to consider the following factors when anticipating the possibility of large groups in a retail setting:

Product placement- If possible, keep high-price ticket items up high and in the back, where they can't be reached easily and where thieves can't quickly grab for them and run, said Roberts.

Cameras- In addition to using surveillance cameras and video to record what is going on in the store, having people on staff that are trained to use still cameras may go a long way in deterring criminals at the scene.

"Having someone whip out a camera and start taking pictures while they are on the phone with police can have a chilling effect," said Roberts. "And once an individual is identified, you can civilly sue. That's a tool that should be utilized as well."

Staff-While the entire premise of flash robbing a store is to outnumber employees, having personnel stationed in key areas where more valuable items are located may keep criminals away. Their aim is to keep employees distracted and overwhelmed so they can steal. But if trained employees know key areas to defend, it may lessen the loss, said Roberts.

Safety-Employees should be reminded not to get involved physically, said Murphy.

"Remind them: Don't be a hero. Don't try and tackle some one," he said.

Roberts said he is hearing a lot of response on social media from angry members of the public who are recommending violence against flash mobs.

"I'm seeing comments like 'Get a gun, close the doors and lock them in,'" said Roberts. "But that is never a good idea. That's just a great way to ensure someone gets hurt in a violent confrontation. Don't ever get involved physically."

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