Retailers throughout the country in recent weeks have been bombarded by so-called “flash mob” robberies in which groups of individuals descend upon a store from seemingly out of nowhere to steal as much loot as possible before making a quick getaway. From high-end clothing establishments in Los Angeles to consumer electronics big box stores in the suburbs of Minneapolis, retailers across the spectrum have been impacted by these coordinated attacks.
While what exactly is driving many of these widescale acts of theft remains up for debate, it’s clear that stores will have to ramp up their efforts to stop similar incidents or risk losing weary customers and staff during what is retailers’ busiest shopping season of the year. Unlike the vast majority of shoplifting that remains relatively under the public radar, these smash and grab thefts have been notable for their level of violence. For example, during a recent robbery at a Nordstrom’s store near San Francisco, the perpetrators reportedly assaulted several employees before fleeing and in Oakland, a security guard protecting a TV news crew during a flash mob robbery there was shot to death.
To get a better understanding of the scope of the problem, SecurityInfoWatch.com (SIW) recently spoke to several loss prevention experts to discuss the steps that retailers can take to mitigate against the threats posed to stores by these mass thefts as well as what can be done more broadly to address organized retail crime (ORC) as a whole.
Meet the Panel:
- Christian Beckner, VP of Retail Technology and Cybersecurity, National Retail Federation (NRF)
- Dean Correia, Emeritus Faculty, Business Continuity Lead, Security Executive Council, former Director of Corporate Security for Walmart Canada
- King Rogers, former Vice President of Assets Protection, Target Corp.
SIW: What do you see as the drivers behind the recent wave of flash mob thefts?
Beckner: There’s not a single, definitive answer to that question. There are a variety of factors, and it is different, in some degree, in different locations and cities. In some cases, it is one factor and there are areas where there has been decreased law enforcement presence. In some jurisdictions where you have a decrease in what law enforcement can do in terms of arrest and prosecution, that is a factor. Both of those things contribute to organized criminal gangs and others looking at this as a relatively low-risk type of activity compared to other types of criminal activity that they might otherwise be engaging in.
Correia: Many of the recent flash mob thefts are the result of a myriad of legislative and economic factors in certain cities, coupled with known reduced or hesitant police response.
Rogers: There are two drivers behind the motivation and execution of these incidents: Organized criminal enterprises who are motivated by profits and by achieving a position of power by creating mayhem within the American retail culture, and the “group think and do” mentality of the actual smash and grabbers or looters who are motivated by being part of the group, by the thrill and risks of the smashing of property and the theft of merchandise which doesn’t belong to them. I think that once investigators peel this onion back, they will learn that the organized criminal enterprises are well-funded, experienced gang leaders who are personally motivated by the perceived power they achieve by directing their followers and wannabe gang members to actually commit the on-site criminal activity. These enterprises have established communications networks and they develop coordinated tactics designed to hit targets hard and fast and get away with the spoils of their efforts and sell their loot, make profits and languish in the adoration of their followers.
At some point, the fallout from an incident will be human casualties (customers, employees or bystanders, including those unfortunate enough to find themselves in the path of fleeing vehicles being driven by perpetrators of these crimes). It’s sort of like attending a stock car race where part of the thrill is to wait for and watch a serious accident occur as an outcome of an entertaining sport.
SIW: What should retailers be doing to protect their employees, customers and assets from these types of crimes?
Beckner: Retailers can and should have relationships with local law enforcement in their jurisdictions. We’ve seen if there is a law enforcement presence outside of a shopping mall or one of these other areas, that can be a deterrent to this type of activity. Also, having relationships with each other and sharing information on what they are seeing – that is something that is facilitated through some of our loss prevention groups – but there are a number of different ways to collaborate within the industry. At the store level, there are different things you can do to have a presence of your own loss prevention team members, there are things you can do to secure different types of merchandise – having different types of tracking technology to make it harder for it to be resold if it is stolen – so there are those well-known technologies that at least offer some type of deterrent for certain types of merchandise, but are not necessarily going to solve the problem by itself.
Correia: It is incumbent for retailers to gather intelligence consistently to assess this risk for their stores. This will allow for almost-just-in-time situational risk understanding and the utilization of culturally appropriate mitigation tactics. Group retail collaboration to voice concerns and solutions with local police and politicians may help increase the reality and impact change.
Rogers: In order to impact these incidents, retailers and shopping center operators should have well-designed camera video systems in place and should ensure they are operational every day. Camera placements are crucial to cover as much area where these events are likely to take place as possible. Video clarity is just as critical as area coverage. While there might be some deterrent effect, the use of video systems is primarily for post-incident investigative efforts and for evidentiary purposes in subsequent criminal and civil proceedings. Well-managed video systems are a very good and necessary technology application in mitigating these incidents but do little to enable the retailer to anticipate these attacks and intervene prior to them happening.
Yes, retailers can undertake the expense of uniformed security or off-duty law enforcement personnel as some form of visible deterrence but frequently their presence is ignored and even challenged by the perpetrators of these crimes. But the best tool(s) for retailers to have in their tool belts is to have a very good and mutually respective relationship with local and state law enforcement and collaborate and share information and to have a shared robust intelligence gathering and analysis system. Social media researchers and data collection experts are a phenomenal resource, especially if they are capable of deep dives in the more shady and obtuse social data sites. When perpetrators of these incidents of criminal behavior are apprehended, law enforcement can develop human intelligence through legal questioning of these individuals and, working with their retail social media researcher counterparts, collaborate and corroborate information learned and, in many cases, develop action plans to interdict deterrence activity.
Today there are companies that exist primarily to provide data gathering and analysis for retailers who are also very adept at nurturing relationships with partners in law enforcement to help their retail customers actively protect themselves. Utilization of the services provided by these companies is highly recommended.
SIW: How much of this do you attribute to the involvement of ORC syndicates and how much of it is just simply opportunistic criminals?
Beckner: Our assessment looking at it is that large percentage of this is organized criminal gangs taking advantage of the situation, but some of these cases may be other people engaging in copycat-type activity where they have seen this can be done, so groups that we may not think of as organized retail criminal groups are engaging in similar thefts and robberies.
Correia: It is most likely a blend. ORC has always been able to quickly identify the less secure retailers and exploit them. Retailers should investigate the avenues available to ORC to sell the stolen goods as a way to dent their supply chain.
Rogers: The type of crimes we are discussing are not opportunistic. They are crimes that are discussed by the perpetrators, planned and organized and then carried out by groups of people. With a solid intelligence basis, these crimes can be avoided. The 2002 movie “Minority Report” starring Tom Cruise, was about the ability, through the use of artificial intelligence (AI), to know when a criminal was going to commit a crime and then take the actions to prevent the actual crime from occurring. And, of course, the question that needed to be answered was: if the crime was prevented and didn’t take place, could law enforcement arrest the would-be criminal and, if they did, what would the would-be criminal be charged with?
SIW: Do you think it may be time for some retailers to rethink their policies when it comes to confronting shoplifters?
Correia: This will always be difficult. People are every retailer’s most important asset and to change policy may put the employee in harm’s way. Again, criminals know which retailers do and do not have a “do not confront” policy. Many retailers are struggling fulfilling their staffing needs so a change in policy may exacerbate their staffing shortage. Current and future policy changes by companies will most likely be driven by local legislation and company culture.
Rogers: It depends on what the retailer’s policies are today. Those policies are frequently a result of the jurisdiction where the retailer is doing business. Many retailers in the San Francisco area have simply closed their stores and left the area. Most of those retailers could not remain in place as a viable business. Through deeply misguided jurisprudence practice, it no longer made sense for the retailers to undertake the additional costs of store security when that activity was rendered ineffective by local laws and judicial practices. The retailers were powerless to protect themselves as the power had shifted to the criminal to, at very little risk and for high rewards, go into the retail establishment and take whatever they wanted, frequently through very violent action.
The mayor of Chicago recently said publicly that a very large reason for the crimes against retailers in that city was because the retailers were not doing enough to protect themselves. She did not address the causalities from the social decadence which has taken place through many years of misguided jurisprudence. It is apparent that government leaders like that mayor don’t have a solution to clean up their city or state and make it safer and therefore find it easier to blame others rather than becoming accountable to fix the problems.
SIW: What are some ways that retailers can better leverage technology and other resources to combat ORC?
Correia: Real-time incident reporting, facial recognition, undercover security officers with the powers of arrest, greeters, store CPTED, increased CCTV signage, tagging of merchandise, and physical security attached to merchandise may help. It is also important to constantly look at merchandise assortment in the stores as well as how the merchandise is displayed. For example, if high priced merchandise is not selling for a period of time, transfer it to a store that is selling it.
SIW: How much onus do you put on the municipalities and states where these incidents have occurred for these crimes? What should they be doing to help put a stop to this?
Beckner: The key problem is not necessarily the arrest and investigations side, although there certainly could be more capacity there, but we’ve heard numerous examples from our members and others who we’ve talked to about cases being built against groups and individuals and then district attorneys declining to prosecute those cases either because it is viewed as a lower priority than other cases that they might be within their existing case load or just because that area might have different prosecutorial priorities or tiers for things it looks at. There is also some renewed dialogue around how to treat these issues from a prosecution standpoint, not to necessarily focus on the people that are the frontline people going into the stores, but to look at the people buying these stolen goods and then fencing them or reselling them or, in some cases, shipping them out of the country. Building those cases against groups and the way you traditionally would against organized crime is what we would like to see at the local, state and federal level.
Correia: It’s incumbent for all retailers to drive the creation of public/private partnerships in order to work together to keep employees safe and enable businesses to thrive.
Rogers: Actually, before any federal mandate can successfully take place to assist local governments, the local communities need to be educated on what is happening where they live and work, why and what they can do about it. When the local citizens begin as a group to understand the extent of what has happened as a result of weak jurisprudence policies and practices, they can then challenge local governments through public dialog and through political and election monitoring efforts to effect change. Certain cities, counties and states have sunk precipitously toward non-existence and will completely bottom out if drastic changes in administration are not made quickly. Once the changes are identified and implemented, if they have been done in time and in fact the local jurisprudence can be reversed, then federal legislation designed to address ORC can be developed and implemented…..but not until local government accepts responsibility for change at their levels.
SIW: When you look at the current legislative landscape, where do things stand with regards to states implementing tougher measures to crackdown on ORC and what do you believe the prospects are for getting federal legislation passed at some point down the line?
Beckner: Our main area of emphasis right now has been looking at different things we can do that have a higher chance of moving forward in this type of environment and one of the things we’ve advocated for is looking at legislation that would improve coordination between the agencies that are involved with this between the federal, state and local law enforcement agencies that all play a role here. Right now, there is not really a strong central clearinghouse for information on who are the current groups engaged in this, what are their tactics, where are they operating, and helping to build cases across state lines to have that threat picture and provide training and insightful intelligent to local law enforcement. We’re looking at some options from a legislative standpoint that would provide more structure around that and some additional funding to address those types of issues and involving retailer and other stakeholders as well.
Correia: Too early to tell for many of our members. Like most government policy changes, the impetus for action will most likely come from pressure from public and private entities.
Rogers: ORC has been around a long time. Within the last ten years or so it has become more prevalent than it was in the past, but the brazenness of the current organized flash mob, smash and grab and looting activity is new and very troubling. It is a war against America and, very likely as in all wars, somebody or bodies are going to be hurt. Lawmakers need to step up and do what is right and necessary to address it ASAP. Retailers can’t fix it alone, Ms. Mayor and neither can defunded and hamstrung cops.
Joel Griffin is the Editor of SecurityInfoWatch.com and a veteran security journalist. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.