Flash mobs used to be entertaining. Now, in some cases it's become a criminal act that's increasingly concerning retailers.
The annals of YouTube are a storehouse of security videos showing mobs (generally youthful ones) raiding convenience stores, running off without paying for 40s of beer and cases of cigarettes.
Earlier this month, more brazen groups tried new tactics -- heading into stores like Sports Authority and wheeling out entire carts of merchandise.
Three Chicago-area Sports Authority stores were hit within a series of days, according to CBS Chicago. Thousands of dollars in merchandise disappeared within seconds.
"(Flash mobs) used to just be fun. They used to just be positive and now, I don't know, it seems to have turned into something negative," one Sports Authority shopper told CBS.
As the holiday shopping season picks up, it's likely there will be more of these incidents.It's hardly a new trend, though. Roughly one in 10 businesses nationwide have seen flash mob tactics used in "multiple offender crimes," according to a 2011 survey by the National Retail Federation.
"There are instances where multiple offender crime groups organize using social media, texting and viral emails, then commit crimes such as theft, vandalism, assault and battery," the report notes.
The crimes amount to sizable losses for retailers -- especially when items stolen are from high-end retailers. If a group of 10 people each manage to grab $100 worth of items, a business could lose $1,000 in a matter of minutes.
"Since these offenders target highly desirable merchandise placed toward the front of the store, companies are now faced with lost sales opportunities and labor costs to re-merchandise the area," the NRF report states.
The NRF does list some guidelines to protect both customers and retailers faced with flash mob thieves.
- Watch for large crowds gathering inside or outside of establishments.
- Monitor social media networks for plans of a group event.
- Work with other retailers, mall security and law enforcement to share information.
- Position employees strategically to discourage opportunities for theft.
- If items are on wheeled carts, make sure carts are locked into position.
- Keep any security footage of the offenders in action and share it with law enforcement.
As the shopping fervor picks up this season, it's up to retailers to remain vigilant. Working with local law enforcement and neighboring merchants is critical to keeping both employees and customers safe this shopping season.