Asymmetrical Information - Megan McArdle

02.26.13

Criminal Flash Mobs. Apparently, That's a Thing Now.

Dozens of teenagers mobbing stores for a simultaneous shoplifting spree. How are merchants supposed to defend against this sort of mass attack?

Last night, someone in my neighborhood sent a query to the police district listserv:

Around 11PM, I was out with my dog and there was an ambulance transporting a victim from the 7-11. There were no less than 8 police cars marked and unmarked and police behind the counter looking for something and police outside with flashlights looking for something.

One office announced that 7-11 was closed to some teens that were trying to go in there.

Was this a shooting or a stabbing or what? Has anyone been caught?

The police department responded:

This establishment was subjected to a “Flash Mob” incident where several individual stole assorted items from the store. An employee was also assaulted and robbed outside of the store.

The incident is currently being investigated by Fifth District Detectives who have identified some of the individuals involved. We expect to have several arrests regarding this case in the near future.

7-11 flash mobs?  I dimly recalled seeing Rod Dreher blog about this happening in malls near his home.  Is this really a thing? Are we now sending half-a-dozen police cars to handle . . . teenagers armed with cell phones?

Yes, this is apparently a thing.  A growing thing that police are worried about.

What happened here is not an isolated incident. It’s happening more and more across Maryland and it’s a real source of frustration for law enforcement.

A similar incident happened last month at the 7-Eleven on Liberty Road in Baltimore County. And mobs of teens have looted several stores like the one in Montgomery County, stealing hundreds of dollars worth of merchandise.

“I don’t think there’s any place that is immune from flash mobbing,” security expert Rob Weinhold with the Weinhold/Fallston Group said.

It's maddeningly clever.  It's hard to defend against dozens of teenagers descending on your store at once.  And even if the police catch someone, what are the odds that he can credibly name the hundred-odd teenagers who were also there?  For that matter, what are the odds that police want to expend a lot of investigative energy booking dozens of people on a petty shoplifting charge?

Doesn't work in a small town, of course--too much risk that the clerk, or one of the customers, goes to church with your mother.  But in an urban area, just pick any place a mile or so from your high school, and you're pretty much safe from arrest or retribution.  Technically, I presume that this could be done without cell phones--but it may not have occurred to anyone until people invented flash mobs for more benign purposes.

Yet if it's petty in the individual, in aggregate, it's a major problem--or will be, if it becomes common.  100 people each stealing $10 worth of merchandise is a major loss for the store.

In other words, technological change may be lowering the cost of committing petty crime--both the coordination cost, and the odds of geting caught.  Economics 101 suggests that we may well expect to get more of it.

Obviously, I'm not going to suggest that we should all give up cell phones because some teenagers may be misusing them.  But I hope that someone is working on some sort of solution for this--technological or otherwise.