Skip to main content

New York-based columnist for The Globe and Mail

The video footage looks like it’s from a movie about a futuristic dystopian society where anarchy and violence reign.

Dozens of people wearing ski masks, some brandishing crowbars, storm a California department store, ransack shelves, break glass counters housing valuables and sprint away with merchandise. The only thing missing is an action hero charging in to save the day.

But this is no Hollywood blockbuster set a thousand years in the future. It is real and it is now, and it has quickly become U.S. retailers’ worst nightmare before Christmas.

Flash mob robberies comprise one of the fastest growing crime waves in America. The FBI estimates that they will cost U.S. retailers as much as US$30-billion this year. And, law enforcement warns, with the holiday shopping season under way the problem is bound to get worse.

For bricks-and-mortar retailers already struggling with inflationary pressures driving up prices, widespread worker shortages, supply chain delays and increasing competition from online rivals, flash mobs are an unwelcome Grinch.

Flash mobsters are not conventional shoplifters. Police say they are organized and often tied to professional crime rings. They are unpredictable, facilitated by social media’s ability to mobilize large numbers of people quickly. Recent mobs have ranged in size from a handful of people to 80 robbers.

The U.S. National Retail Federation has said these robberies have become more violent and have spread from cities to suburbs.

California is a hotbed of activity. In San Francisco and Los Angeles, as well as communities in between, mobs have ransacked high-end retail stores, making off with luxury goods such as handbags that can quickly be resold online. While some arrests have been made, most mob members remain at large.

Flash mob robberies have also occurred in Minnesota, Maryland and Illinois. Chicago police said a flash mob stole more than US$120,000 in goods from a local Louis Vuitton store the week before American Thanksgiving.

The rise of flash mob robberies, also known as smash-and-grab or grab-and-go robberies, has generated a flurry of commentary on the cause of the phenomenon.

On Thursday, the Biden administration weighed in with an absurd diagnosis, suggesting COVID-19 is to blame.

“In a lot of communities, the pandemic is a root cause of the smash-and-grab robberies occurring across the country,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a news conference.

The statement was met with skepticism, with Peter Dooley of Fox News asking: “So, when a huge group of criminals organizes themselves and they want to go loot a store – a CVS, a Nordstrom, a Home Depot – until the shelves are clean, you think that’s because of the pandemic?”

Ms. Psaki’s response was hardly convincing: “Many people have conveyed that, and also one of the reasons that crime – one of the root causes of crime in communities is guns and gun violence and we’ve seen that statistically around the country,” she said.

When in doubt, blame COVID-19, the catch-all cause for things the administration can’t or doesn’t want to explain. When that doesn’t work, blame guns – even though flash mobsters typically have not used firearms in the commission of their crimes.

The truth is, these are criminals, plain and simple, committing crimes of opportunity – opportunity born of changes in the way some U.S. jurisdictions manage justice.

In cities where police forces have been defunded and declawed, there is less enforcement on the streets. That means flash mobs can get in and out of stores quickly before police respond. Los Angeles voted this year to redirect $89-million in police funding to community initiatives. Flash mobsters in that city used bear repellent spray to subdue a store security guard. Another Los Angeles mob intimidated store employees and customers with sledgehammers.

In states like California, laws have been softened to the point where the punishment is worth the risk. California’s felony theft threshold has been raised from US$500 to US$950, meaning robbers who steal up to US$950 of goods are subject to misdemeanour charges, which often carry small fines, not jail terms – if there is any punishment at all. The Golden State, indeed.

The wave of destructive protests in many U.S. cities in 2020 showed that, with enough manpower, theft and property damage can be carried out with little or no consequence. Even now, boarded-up stores destroyed during what some media still insist on calling “mainly peaceful” demonstrations are evident.

The bottom line is this: Flash mob robbers see the stars aligning around a golden opportunity – fewer police, with less power and laws so lax they can expect slaps on the wrist if they are caught.

Your time is valuable. Have the Top Business Headlines newsletter conveniently delivered to your inbox in the morning or evening. Sign up today.