What’s causing the trend in flash mobs engaging in “smash-and-grab” thefts of luxury goods & how might we respond?

Over the past few weeks there’s been a considerable amount of news media coverage of flash mob “smash-and-grabs,” also known as flash robs, of luxury items from retail stores throughout the United States.

True, stores like Best Buy, CVS, and Home Depot have been subject to this kind of victimization, but luxury items like clothing, accessories, and jewelry stolen from stores like Louis Vuitton represent a special case.

As part of this story, journalists and pundits have emphasized the brazen nature of these crimes. Although these incidents are shocking and terrifying to store personnel, patrons of the stores, and television viewers, some of this dialogue is resembling a crime-reporting spree, largely because we don’t have any national data yet indicating that there is an uptick in this type of crime.

Also we don’t really know right now if the majority of the goods that are stolen are being used for personal consumption, being given to girlfriends, spouses, or mothers, or they are being sold. In other words, there are a lot of unknowns right now with respect to this type of crime.

Nevertheless, why is this taking place? There may be at least six reasons, from least to most important, why the smash-and-grab of luxury items are occurring now.

First, the thieves may think that they can easily get away with these types of crimes. From the CCTV footage broadcast in news stories, it appears that many of the thieves don’t seem to be too sophisticated. They are not completely masked, and the make, model, color, and license plate numbers of many of their vehicles are easily identified. Thus they are relatively easily tracked. Also some states (e.g., California’s passage of Prop 47), have raised the dollar amount for goods that are stolen to be considered to be a felony rather than a misdemeanor. This has led some people to mistakenly believe that this has led to an increase in thefts under $1000 and that people who engage in this activity are not prosecuted. This is not true.

Second, people who commit smash-and-grabs may be bored. In other words, they may believe that alternative activities that will interest or excite them are not available or have become dull. In this kind of scenario the crime is committed not because people are using the proceeds to feed a family. It’s for the sneaky thrills.

Third, there may be a contagion effect. News and social media coverage of these incidents may stimulate those so inclined to engage in smash-and-grabs to finally commit them.

Fourth, a number of almost frictionless methods (e.g., E-bay, craigslist, and other on-line third party sellers), and communication methods (e.g., DM via social media apps) exist that enable and facilitate thieves to sell these goods.

Fifth there is a greater availability of luxury goods for sale. Almost every big city now have luxury retailers as standalone stores, or they sell their goods through department stores (e.g., Bloomingdales, Nordstrom’s, or Macys) that operate like retail platforms

Sixth and most importantly, there is a high demand for these kinds of big ticket goods, tied to advertising, merchandizing, and street culture. In all likelihood, if there was not such a demand people would not steal luxury items.

The next important question is probably how can we better prevent smash-and-grabs from occurring?

There are about seven ways we can minimize these types of thefts. And many retail operations do this already:

• Place more items under better lock and key.

• Install more CCTV inside and outside the stores.

• More identification/serial numbers affixed to the items for sale.

• Die packs like banks use.

• More tagging of items.

• Increase the number of security personnel, and engage in more security protocols.

• More arrests of individuals who commit smash-and-grabs.

• Most importantly, and more difficult is educating the public and consumers, in particular, about how brands, regardless of whether they are luxury or not, work. Brands get into our heads. They stand for something.The goods, may not be of superior quality, but they are associated with social status. Perhaps understanding how this dynamic works, and creates irrational wants and needs may have a dampening effect, on retail thefts?

This is a long term strategy, not something we are going to be successful at in the short term, and thus more difficult to address before we move into the Christmas season with more shopping, etc.

Photo Credit
Mike Mozar
Louis Vuitton Store, Beverly Hills, California


This week Francesca Vianello’s (University of Padua) and my edited book Convict Criminology for the Future was published as A Criminologia dos Condenados E O Futuro, by Brazilian publisher Tirant Lo Branch. During this process, not only were we significantly assisted by respected Brazilian Criminologist Dr. Maria Lucia Karam, who graciously and masterfully translated the book into Portuguese, but Dr. Sacha Darke of Westminster University, and Aline Gostinski, Editor, Tirant Lo Blanch helped us too.

By way of background, Convict Criminology for the Future, published earlier this year by Routledge, had its origins in a two day conference that was held in May/June 2019 at the University of Padua. We are grateful to our contributors who produced excellent chapters.

Now that the book has been translated into Portuguese, A Criminologia dos Condenados E O Futuro, will be most useful to Portuguese speaking students and scholars of criminology/criminal justice and corrections, journalists, prison activists, and relevant policy makers, legislators, and practitioners (i.e., especially individuals who work in correctional facilities) or those who are incarcerated.

Among the ten countries where Portuguese is the principle language, the book may find its greatest utility in Brazil and Portugal, countries that have some of the highest numbers of people who are incarcerated.

In general, the Brazilian and Portuguese prisons are a study in contrasts. In Portugal (with a prison population of 11,463, and ranked approximately 137 in number of prisoners per 100,000 population), largely because the country is part of the European Economic Union, the correctional institutions are generally safe, there are rehabilitative programs in place, and overall the treatment is humane.

The Brazilian prison system, on the other hand, (with 759,518 people incarcerated, and ranked approximately 19th in number of prisoners per 100,000 population), is the third largest in terms of number of people incarcerated (just behind the United States and the Peoples Republic of China). Inmates experience routine violence, crowding and overcrowding, and occasional riots happen in many Brazilian correctional facilities. Brazilian prisons are typically understaffed, have poor food and health care. Many of the detainees have been swept up in the Brazilian state’s war on drugs.

And many of the people who are incarcerated in the Brazilian prison system are awaiting trial. For one reason or another, they do not have legal representation, so they are in prison until their day in court. Some of them are just languishing in the correctional facilities, way past the date they were supposed to be released.

Over the past decade a number of Brazilian criminologists and lawyers have been introduced to Convict Criminology scholarship and pedagogy. And it’s our hope that A Criminologia dos Condenados E O Futuro, will be useful for them.

We also hope that the translation of our book into Portuguese will increase discussions regarding not just the role of convicts and exconvicts in the scholarly study of Criminology/Criminal Justice, including much needed reforms, but it will serve as a catalyst to greater cross-national co-operation in addressing the challenges faced by individuals who are incarcerated seeking to pursue post graduate studies behind bars and upon exit.

Three cheers for divisions in learned societies

One of the principle concepts in the field of cell biology is mitosis.

This natural process occurs when a cell or organism splits into two.

A similar situation happens in many learned societies (e.g., American Sociological Association, American Political Science Association, etc.).

Over time, as knowledge accumulates and new people study a phenomenon, they may feel that their interests would be better served if they joined or formed a brand new unit of a learned society under the auspices of the parent organization.

Along with likeminded members, they may start by holding their own panels, and progress to constructing a website, producing a newsletter or journal, and holding their own social. Down the road, they may even split away from the host organization.

Creating and managing a subdivision, especially if it’s done in a professional manner, can be a lot of time consuming work for individuals and groups considering this option. Nevertheless divisions in major learned organizations provide numerous benefits both for the parent organization and for individual members.

For the large learned organization, it is a way to devolve some the responsibilities for communicating, educating, and socializing members into the wider learned society and professional culture of the profession.

Just like extracurricular groups in high school and universities, subdivisions of learned organizations often:

• Minimize alienation felt by new and existing members of the larger organization. People who are new to the learned society may find a subdivision to be an easier point of access to the larger learned society. They may find others similar to themselves much quicker, than by bouncing around the larger learned society.
• Enable members to gain valuable leadership and management experience in a low risk environment. Most subdivisions have lots of openings for positions that few members want to do (e.g., treasurer, secretary, etc.). Much of the experienced gained in working in these positions are transferable to academic positions like chairs of departments, assistant deans etc.
• Assist in the development of members and the profession.
• Facilitate another opportunity for the mentoring of graduate students and junior faculty
• Allows additional publication opportunities (i.e., outlets) to members, especially junior ones, like graduate students.
• Experiment with new forms of member engagement that might be more challenging for the parent organization to accomplish. In this case smaller typically means nimbler.

Divisions are not perfect, but their benefits usually outweigh any negative arguments against their establishment. And when a division of a learned organization outlives its utility, they will eventually be shut down.


Painting “Hip, Hip, Hurrah! Artists’ Party in Skagen” (1888),
by Peder Severin Krøyer,
in Gothenberg’s Museum of Art.