Social Media Frenzy Fuels Rise in Flash Mob Robberies Across Southern California Communities

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December 18, 2023

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Amidst the festive bustle of holiday shopping in Los Angeles, California, Lyn Sazon and her family found themselves caught in an unexpected twist when a flash mob robbery unfolded in front of their eyes.

Prior to Sazon stepping into the Macy’s at the Westfield Century City mall on Dec. 16, 2022, there was a rapid dissemination of plans made by the alleged robbers through social media — a crucial factor in the success of organized flash mob robberies.

“It is very scary since you never know when it’s going to happen,” Sazon said. 

As the rise of flash mob robberies continues to affect Southern California, it’s evident that the intersection of criminal activity and media coverage has created a complex web of challenges, experts said. Orchestrated thefts, fueled by the efficiency of social media, demands not only the attention of law enforcement but a comprehensive reevaluation of public safety measures, residents said.

The Americana at Brand Mall [Credit: Alexa Sabatte]

A flash mob (or smash-and-grab) robbery involves a group of people entering a business and stealing as many items as possible in an organized, yet unorganized, manner. These plans equate to a form of organized retail crime. The more people involved increases the challenge for law enforcement officers to apprehend a majority of those involved in the mob as they disperse quickly after the act.

In Sazon’s case, she said there were five people who appeared to be males, looked “pretty young, maybe high school” aged, and wore all black. 

“They had big trash bags they were stuffing tons of clothes in. Then the alarms went off, but no one did anything,” Sazon said. 

Los Angeles was the most affected by organized retail crime in 2022, to which, the most sought after items have been clothing, accessories, and electronics, according to the National Retail Federation’s 2023 security survey. 

While a wave of flash mob robberies have been on the rise in Southern California, they actually started in 2011 in places including Washington D.C., Las Vegas, and Chicago

Nordstrom Canoga Park flash mob robbery [Credit by ABC7]

Democratic State Rep. Chris Turner, said that the increasing prevalence of flash mobs and smaller theft operations in Texas goes beyond mere petty shoplifting and is becoming more brazen.

“Mom-and-pop businesses, small businesses cannot afford it — and whether it’s a small business or a large business — ultimately it cost consumers more because when there’s theft, that causes prices to go up. So it costs all of us,” Turner said in an interview with Fox7Austin.

Over 50 people were arrested in Philadelphia on Sept. 27 for ransacking multiple stores, including Apple, Lululemon, and Foot Locker.

International and national news outlets such as CNN, the Independent, and USA Today have reported initial occurrences of flash mob robberies, play surveillance footage of the chaos during their station’s evening broadcast, and oftentimes leave their audience out of the loop if any of those crimes resulted in arrests.

“There’s no doubt. When you show it on the news, all over the country, you’re going to find people in small towns who never would’ve known about it or thought about it [flash mob robberies and] get an idea,” Charis Kubrin, a criminology professor at the University of California, Irvine, said. 

Kubrin said that people smiling for the camera after leaving stores and enjoying their short-lived fame are influenced by social media and those who misuse those platforms to actively promote and encourage theft.

“There’s even life hacks on Tik Tok. For example, like ‘How to put something up your sleeve, how to put it in your bag.’ So I feel like especially the younger generations are thinking, ‘If this is an easy way to get things they want,’ social media plays a huge part in encouraging them to take things,” Sazon said. 

Ernesto Lopez, a research specialist with Criminal Council’s Justice and co-author of “Shoplifting Trends: What You Need to Know November 2023” report, highlighted the impact of social media videos glamorizing the Kia Boys’ thefts of Hyundai and Kia vehicles. 

The Milwaukee, Wisconsin, based teenagers have been filmed participating in thefts which led to a documentary titled: “Kia Boys Documentary (A Story of Teenage Car Theft).” The video has been viewed over 7 million times. 

When people believe they are watching others get away with something on social media, it can encourage them to believe they can do it too, Lopez says. 

When Nordstrom was robbed at the Westfield Topanga Mall on Aug. 12, those same news outlets — CNN, the Independent, and USA Today — covered the initial crime, but when the Click analyzed their websites for a follow up report about the arrests of four suspects, there weren’t any articles found. 

KTLA reported the arrests

“My local news station reported the initial flash mob and a bit of the aftermath, but nothing else ever came out of it,” Ivenne Largaespada, resident of Southern California, said. “It seems like you have to go out of your way to find out someone got arrested, let alone what the charges are.”

“The news has also covered and slightly glamorized the robberies, so I feel like the people committing them don’t take any of it seriously,” Christen Keogh, 32 of Los Angeles, said. 

Keogh recognizes that flash mob robberies are a regular problem in Los Angeles, but is unsure how to address them beyond increasing law enforcement presence. 

“I haven’t felt unsafe per se, but I have definitely had a sense of hypervigilance when I am at some of the bigger malls in LA, like the Americana, the Grove, and Century City,” Keogh said. 

On Aug. 8, a group of 30 people invaded the YSL store at the Americana at Brand mall and allegedly stole $400,000 worth of items before fleeing on foot and driving away.

To address retail crime in the Los Angeles area, several police departments established the Organized Retail Theft Task Force (ORCT) on Aug. 21. The ORCT includes the Glendale Police Department where the Americana mall is located.

In the first five weeks of the task force launch, a total of 89 people have been arrested, according to KTLA 5. Police said that a majority of those arrested are identified as males and females between the ages 15 to 23.

With the zero-bail policy instituted in Los Angeles city and county in May, it afforded at least one 18-year-old suspect to get out of jail without paying any money in exchange for her release. She was arrested for participating in a $350,000 flash mob robbery at Nordstrom on Aug. 11, released and arrested the following day for taking part in another theft that resulted in $97,000 in stolen merchandise from Burberry Outlet Store. 

While the zero-bail policy safeguards individuals who commit minor crimes like flash mob robberies, Sazon thinks it shouldn’t apply to larger-scale robberies.

“For bigger robberies like YSL or the Nordstrom, the bail shouldn’t be in place. People need to learn their lesson somehow, people’s actions reap the repercussions of it,” Sazon said. 

 

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