Retailers around the country are gearing up for the holiday shopping season amid fears that a spate of brazen "flash" robberies in Chicago earlier this month could be part of a greater trend of social-media spawned crime.
In three Chicago suburbs, police continue to investigate a spate of what are being described as "flash mob" robberies that occurred two weeks ago at three prominent sporting goods stores.
In one heist, a gang of five or more thieves were in and out in 20 seconds and were captured on surveillance cameras taking with them thousands of dollars' worth of pricey Starter-brand sports team jackets from the big-box retailer Sports Authority.
Such tactics have been seen by police before. In 2011, about 20 Washington, D.C., teens stormed a G-Star Raw store in the Georgetown section of the city, getting away with about $20,000 worth of goods.
Earlier this year, a U Street convenience store in Southeast, D.C. was robbed by a flash mob of about 20 or 30 "kids," who stole candy, soft drinks and anything they could get their hands on, according to one manager who called the swarm "crazy" and "beyond our control."
Chicago and Washington were not alone. In Los Angeles last July, a gang of 40 youth, organized via social media, rampaged on Hollywood Boulevard, stealing cell phones and other items from tourists and other goods from businesses. About a dozen were arrested in the onslaught – all of whom were under the age of 18, save one.
Chicago, however, has been at the epicenter of flash-mob crimes, prompting lawmakers in Illinois to pass stronger penalties earlier this year.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, signed the laws in May, doubling penalties to up to six years in prison for anyone who uses texts or social media to organize such a mob. The legislative action followed several high-profile rampages on Chicago streets, where groups beat people and seized property.
Police, retailers and the Cook County, Ill., state's attorney's office have been collaborating in an attempt to stymie such retail thievery rings, working together to raise awareness and to share information that could potentially deter or shut such robbery rings.
The Englewood, Colo.-based Sports Authority, which operates 450 stores in 45 states, has offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to arrests in the recent Chicago robberies and released a statement after the incidents, saying, "At Sports Authority, the comfort and safety of our employees and customers remain our top priority."
To protect shoppers, Sports Authority has moved the targeted apparel away from the front of the stores with only a few samples left on the racks. Customers seeking a specific team must now ask clerks for the jackets, which cost about $150 apiece.
The words "flash mob" are a dubious distinction and one not yet proven in these recent cases, says Peter Gill, a spokesman for the Illinois Retail Merchants Association.
The notion of a "flash mob" arose up years ago with the advent of smart phone and the text-messaging function, which allowed someone to organize a surprise event by quickly messaging friends.
That initial text was passed on to acquaintances, spreading the word under the radar, said Rob Bliss, a Chicago-based director and event planner, who in the past has coordinated fun flash mobs for entertainment purposes only, including a Zombie walk and giant public pillow fight.
The name "flash mob" was used, he said, because the events were usually "gone in a flash."
That was the case in the recent Chicago robberies which occurred in the suburban areas of Belmont, Burbank and Frankfort, one on Saturday Nov. 4 and two on Monday, Nov. 6.
They were undertaken in daylight by a group of what appears to be men, wearing no masks, who burst swiftly into the store, attempting to seize in some cases full racks of apparel and pulling them out the front door to a getaway vehicle waiting for their loot.
Store employees were trampled, and in one video released by the company, a clerk is seen giving chase as the robbers furiously scramble, arms full, from the store. In one attack, they netted merchandise valued at $6,500.
"It was organized and it was blatant theft in the middle of the day," Gill said of the shocking robberies. "It fits all the descriptions that organized retail theft is about."
"Organized retail crime is big money in this country," costing about $1.5 billion annually in losses that are often transferred right back to consumers in pricing, Gill said.
Some retail thieves are "sophisticated," moving from mall to mall and store to store, traveling around the country and later selling their stolen goods to fencers who in turn move them online to sales sites like Ebay or even to flea markets where they are resold, Gill said.
"This was certainly organized because you see multiple people working together, looking at a targeted item, something accessible, valuable and close to the door so they could make an easy escape," he said of the Chicago incidents. "A lot of people in the public were shocked because they don't always see these things. But loss prevention professionals have seen it. That's why they spend so much money on surveillance."
The Sports Authority mob is not the first time for Chicago to see such a robbery. In July 2012, a gang of about 20 teens burst into a store in the city's hipster Wicker Park area, stealing about $3,000 worth of expensive denim jeans. The store owner told an NBC affiliate TV station that the mob, "completely overwhelmed us," and as he ran to lock his store's door, another dozen kids were waiting outside to come in.
"There are definitely issues with trying to control this mob of people… It can very quickly become this sort of mob mentality where there isn't a clear leader and it's like this shapeless mob," Bliss said.
While police have said it is unclear why those specific Chicago-area stores were targeted, the company's decision in making store surveillance videos public and disseminated by media, may have created new avenues for public identification of suspects, Gill said. "It certainly helps. The more people who see them, the better."
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