It didn’t take long. The “flash mob” phenomenon, in which virtual strangers used social media to come together unexpectedly in dance routines or zombie stumbles in public places, had just become fodder for a wireless carrier television commercial and a short lived reality show when something more sinister began happening.
Is This Thing On?, or ITTO, is our Wednesday column showing how everyday people use technology in unexpected ways.
The goofy flash mob movement was highjacked and transformed into a new trend called “flash robs” — a bold new way to ransack and loot mostly small convenience stores.
The recent and highly publicized riots in London, which seemed to come out of nowhere, are perhaps the latest transformation of the flash rob phenomenon that began popping up sporadically around the U.S. less than a year ago.
It started happening like this: young ringleaders select a robbery target and use social media like Twitter, BlackBerry Messenger, and SMS messaging to broadcast a meeting time and place near the selected location. At the appointed time, members of the fluid group begin streaming in and storm the selected store in droves, taking whatever they can grab and trashing the store in the process.
The spontaneity and speed of the robberies make it difficult for law enforcement to respond in a timely matter, and enable some flash robs to occur in broad daylight on busy streets. Usually by the time bystanders or nearby workers understand what is going on, the groups have dispersed and gone their separate ways.
In May, for example, about 20 teens were caught on camera as they robbed a Las Vegas convenience store and stole about $600 worth of merchandise. Police are investigating the crime.
“It became a feeding frenzy,” store owner Jon Athney told KLAS-TV. “They were in the store for three minutes and 30 seconds — it’s a pretty scary thing.”
Last April, workers at a retail store in Washington D.C’s Dupont Circle were caught off guard as a group of about 20 teenagers swarmed the store, taking over $20,000 worth of merchandise before quickly leaving the building.
Perhaps the earliest flash rob incidents occurred in St. Paul, Minnesota, where late last year, a BP station was robbed by about 20 teenagers.
Flash robs have even crept across the U.S. border to its northern neighbor. Police in Canada’s capital city of Ottawa suspect instant messaging played a role in organizing a July looting of a local convenience store. As soon as the overturned shelves were righted, a video was posted on the Internet showing more than 40 young men grabbing soft drinks, chocolate bars and chips — evidence that authorities hope will result in charges being filed.
The teenagers’ mob mentality isn’t surprising to sociologists, who say the vast majority of crimes committed by young people are done so in a group.
“Young people are risk takers; they do things in groups far more than adults do,” said Scott Decker, a criminology professor at Arizona State.
And there is another incentive for the teens to participate — bragging rights. Often, the security videos are uploaded on YouTube, participants share their own pictures of the melee, and the local news may run blurry images of the destruction, sealing the fame of those involved and allowing them to relieve the excitement of the event.
Mobile technology didn’t create flash robs, but it does provide an easy avenue for young people to organize and participate in these types of attacks. As a result, law enforcement is honing in on social media in an attempt to better respond to these types of developing situations, which increasingly target upscale areas.
According to the Chicago Sun Times, Chicago’s Magnificent Mile has been targeted numerous times and now the police are more closely monitoring social media sites and cracking down on the robbing teens.
“We can’t tolerate this stuff,” said Garry McCarthy, police chief of Chicago. “We’re not going to let it go.”
Police formerly would be able to target street corners and abandoned homes as places where young people gathered together to cause trouble and plan mayhem, but now mobile technology has made it easy for a teenager to respond to flash rob request while sitting at the family dinner table. Just as technology has helped organize and changed the nature of group robberies, law enforcement will need to keep on top of technology to respond.