'Flash Robs': How Twitter Is Being Twisted for Criminal Gain [VIDEO]

By Jonsson, Patrik | The Christian Science Monitor, August 3, 2011 | Go to article overview

'Flash Robs': How Twitter Is Being Twisted for Criminal Gain [VIDEO]


Jonsson, Patrik, The Christian Science Monitor


'Flash robs' take social-media driven 'flash mobs' into new and dark territory, using Twitter and Facebook to organize thefts. It's a sign of how the Internet can reshape criminal behavior.

A message goes out over Twitter and suddenly hordes of young people appear in a store and start stealing thousands of dollars' worth of merchandise. Then, as quickly as they came, they disappear.

It's happened in cities from Las Vegas to South Orange, N.J. - a criminal twist on the "flash mobs" phenomenon in which people use social-media websites to organize instant political events, massive snowball fights, or insurrections in the Middle East.

Police are on the alert. "We have to knock this out," incoming Chi-cago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said recently after several major stores, including The North Face and Filene's Basement, were hit by "flash robs" along the city's Miracle Mile shopping district, raising concerns that tourists might begin to avoid the areas.

For a growing number of marginalized youth in urban America - especially young black men, who have been the hardest hit by America's economic troubles - flash robs have become a way to feel powerful, some social-justice experts say. For others, they could be a new outlet for Internet-age thrill-seekers.

But social media is clearly becoming a new tool for crime, and flash robs are simply one of the newest mutations.

"The fascinating thing about technology is that once we open the door, it's going to move in ways that we can't always predict and are slow to control, because we are reacting rather than [being] proactive," says Scott Decker, a criminal justice professor at Arizona State University in Tempe.

An ongoing Arizona State survey about how criminals use social media indicates that about 10 in 300 convicted criminals interviewed have used Twitter and other social media to organize drug deals and gang warfare.

But its use in flash robs has gained the attention of law enforcement in recent months. In some cases, the use of social media to organize the crime has been established, in others the rapid arrival and dispersal of the crowds have had all the earmarks of a "flash mob," even if police haven't confirmed the circumstances.

- In Washing-ton, D.C., a group of thieves robbed a Victoria's Secret in a 20-second raid that police believe was organized on social media.

- In Upper Darby, Pa., a group of 30 to 40 teenagers, police say, organized via social media to rob and pillage a Sears store in June, making off with thousands of dollars' worth of goods. About half of those involved have been apprehended.

- In Philadelphia, a group of 100 teenagers that has been described as a flash mob in media reports attacked a group of pedestrians near a downtown subway station on June 25, putting one of the victims, an editor at the satirical newspaper The Onion, in the hospital with a broken leg.

- In the Streeterville neighborhood of Chicago, flash mobs were implicated in several incidents in June, including one in which a man was knocked off his bike and beaten as youths made off with his camera and cellphone.

- In Las Vegas, a group of 35 people robbed a convenience store in May. …

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