'Flash robs': How Twitter is being twisted for criminal gain [VIDEO]
'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.
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Observers are careful not to overplay the rise of flash robs: Youth crime rates have continued to drop in the United States. But the trend is worrisome. Organized hits of retailers – which include but are not limited to flash robs – have increased during the past three years, with 95 percent of 129 major retailers saying they’d been victimized by organized criminals since 2010, according to a survey by the National Retail Federation. The survey did not have any data on flash robs alone.Skip to next paragraph
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The ease of moving stolen goods online has contributed to the uptick, retailers say. So has the economy, which has hit young black men particularly hard. “For once in their life they have a sense of power that says, ‘I’m willing to stand up to the system,’ ” says Phillip Jackson, founder of the Million Father March, in Chicago. “It takes a mob mentality in order to get that courage, and the larger the mob, the more courage and sometimes the more heinous the crime.”
While disaffected black youths appear to be one driver of flash robs, they are not the only participants. In some of the convenience store flash robs, teenagers who apparently have enough money for an iPhone and a data plan may not need to steal a bag of chips.
Instead, some tech-savvy teenagers might simply be out for notoriety, knowing full well that the acts are being captured on video that’s likely to be uploaded to YouTube, says Professor Decker of Arizona State.
“Certainly, YouTube has become the bragging board [of our time],” he says. “Every guy who beats somebody up, every gang has got YouTube videos.”In this way, flash robs raise questions about whether new technology is introducing new people to criminal behavior and, potentially, violence.
“The question is, are people currently engaged in street crime discovering the technology and adapting it … or are these new groups that are moving into street crime facilitated by the existence of social media?” Decker asks.
Either way, flash robs show a “dark side” of social media, says Sean Varano, a criminal justice professor at Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I.“We can look at the G8 summits and the anarchy movements that have adopted some of these technology strategies – and the Vancouver riots in the aftermath of the Stanley Cup – there was a social media dimension to that,” he says. “Maybe there’s a diffusion effect here where slowly these ideas are [becoming more widespread] and people are becoming more attuned to the technology and how to exploit it.”
This presents potential challenges to law enforcement. “Do these groups represent criminal enterprises … in which case it’s not unreasonable to assume that these might amount to federal crimes,” he asks.
Moreover, flash robs could sharpen racial stereotypes in troublesome ways. “The first time a group of young kids of color walk into a store, the clerk assumes it’s a flash rob, and now you’ve got racial profiling that emerges,” adds Mr. Varano. “It’s not unreasonable to assume that this is a very slippery slope.”