Flash mobs aren’t just people bursting into song at food courts anymore.
Most people have heard of flash mobs: groups of people who convene at a set time and place to perform a coordinated activity, often organized via a viral email or text.
Now, flash mobs are converging on stores and stealing things in a trend commonly referred to as “flash robs.” Stores from Portland, Ore. to Chicago, Ill. were overwhelmed last year with young people who entered a store in sync and stole items while clerks helplessly watched.
Here in Washington, a state legislator wants to address the problem by making it easier to prosecute groups of people who organize a theft spree via text or email.
Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, has introduced a bill that would allow groups of nine people or more to be charged with organized retail theft if they collectively steal $250 or more in merchandise and use electronic messages to plan the crime. Existing law requires a person and at least one accomplice to steal goods worth $750 to be charged with organized retail theft, which is a felony.
Carrell’s proposal, Senate Bill 5178, will have a hearing at 8 a.m. Friday before the Senate Law & Justice Committee.
“There’s nothing wrong with people communicating over the phone and coming together as a group to do a dance or something else,” Carrell said. “It’s when it is organized for a criminal activity and a bunch of people come into a store, and there’s so many of them that the store owner is simply overwhelmed and can do nothing. And they’re simply grabbing things off the shelves and disappearing.”
Last year, flash mobs entered and stole from several stores in the Portland, Ore. area, according to local news reports. In April 2012 a group of 16 teenagers entered a gas station convenience store in Southeast Portland and simultaneously stole candy and soda while a store worker was unable to stop them.
The same month, a group struck a Nordstrom department store at a Portland mall and stole six North Face jackets, valued collectively at $650.
Then, in June 2012, about 30 to 40 teens entered an Albertsons grocery store in the Portland suburb of Troutdale and stole various items. A Walgreens drug store in Portland was targeted a few months later.
“We haven’t really been able to do anything,” said Sgt. Pete Simpson, spokesman for the Portland Police Bureau. “We’ve worked on it and tried to identify people involved in these thefts, but given the nature of them, its very difficult to predict when they’re happening.”
Sometimes the value of the stolen goods can total thousands of dollars. A group of flash robbers stormed a Chicago clothing boutique in July 2012 and stole more than $3,000 in designer jeans, local news outlets reported.
Carrell said that he’s not aware of any flash mob thefts happening in his district or nearby, and a spokesman for the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department said that his agency hasn’t had encountered any such thefts in Pierce County.
But Carrell said the growing popularity of these types of crimes elsewhere means it’s “one of those things that we really need to nip in the bud.”
“It’s better to stop things from happening than caring after it already has become an established thing,” Carrell said. “We want to make it clear that you’d better not organize these come together, smash-and-grab type of organized activities, or you’re going to be in deep trouble.”