String of ‘organized retail robberies’ lead California investigators to social media

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Mayors in California are investigating the possibility thieves used social media to facilitate two quick-hitting thefts, including one Saturday night where dozens of people reportedly stole from a Nordstrom.

In Walnut Creek, about 25 miles northeast of San Francisco, about 80 people descended on the Nordstrom in Broadway Plaza at 9 p.m. and made off with merchandise within a minute, police said.

Walnut Creek Mayor Kevin Wilk said he’s been in regular contact with his police chief and city manager about the theft.

“The Chief has been clear from the beginning that this was not a random gathering of dozens of people, but a planned, organized attack: Organized retail robbery,” Wilk said in an email. “Evidence gathered and being reviewed by investigators supports the fact social media and social platforms are among the primary methods of communication in cases such as this.”

Wilk did not disclose which social media platforms were used.

Three people have been arrested and are facing charges including robbery, burglary, conspiracy and possession of stolen property. At least one person faces gun charges, police said.

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Wilk said there is more than one “organized theft group” in the Bay Area.

Hayward Mayor Barbara Halliday said the city’s police department is also looking into how social media was used in recent “smash-and-grab” crimes.

A jewelry store in Southland Mall in Hayward, about 30 miles southwest of Walnut Creek, was targeted Sunday afternoon by about nine people who used hammers to smash cases before they fled, NBC Bay Area reported.

“The possibility of criminal activity being coordinated via the use of social media is explored and investigated in all criminal matters,” Hayward police Officer Cassondra Fovel said in a statement.

Similar incidents have occurred in San Francisco and neighboring communities throughout the year.

The apparent targeted attacks have occurred at the area’s high-end retail stores and pharmacies. Walgreens announced last month that it would close five stores in San Francisco because of organized retail theft.

The reasoning, amid longstanding plans to close hundreds of stores nationwide, was challenged by San Francisco Mayor London Breed and was inconsistent with local crime data, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

On Tuesday night, San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin announced charges against nine suspects in three alleged thefts Friday. Five of the arrests were in connection with a smash-and-grab at a Louis Vuitton boutique, three stemmed from a burglary at an unnamed cannabis business and one was from a burglary of a Walgreens.

Allegations for most of the suspects include “looting during a state of emergency,” burglary, and receiving stolen property. Two also faced firearms-related charges.

“These brazen acts will not be tolerated in San Francisco,” Boudin said in a statement.

On Monday night, a group broke into a Nordstrom at a popular Los Angeles shopping center in an apparent smash-and-grab, police said.

The thieves fled the Grove shopping center, setting off a chase, and three people were taken into custody, Los Angeles police said. It was unclear how many people were involved and what was taken.

The recent thefts have happened in cities outside California.

More than a dozen people in Oak Brook, a Chicago suburb, were recorded on security video Wednesday afternoon grabbing bags and wiping shelves clear at a Louis Vuitton store, police said.

The stolen merchandise was estimated at $120,000, Oak Brook police said.

Clint Watts, a national security contributor for NBC News and MSNBC, said the ability to “anonymously collectively organize and descend in pursuit of a crime has gone up exponentially as people have gone to social media.”

An incident like what occurred in Walnut Creek would most likely require the type of networking social media provides, Watts said.

“Speed, coordination, mass volume. That’s tough to do. Social media makes all that easier,” Watts said. “You can engage a lot of people. … In terms of that many people showing up at the same time to hit a place, I don’t know how you pull it off without social media.”

Michael Alcazar, an adjunct professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, said he retired as a detective with the New York City Police Department in 2019.

Alcazar said he has seen how criminals used social media to coordinate lawlessness. He has investigated at least one instance where about 10 people used social media to plan a swarming theft at a business, but nothing as large as what occurred in Walnut Creek.

“Wherever you have social media, they message each other. They communicate with each other,” Alcazar said. “Because it’s a flash mob thing, that there is so many of them, they feel like they can get away with it. Like, ‘They can’t get all of us.’”

The Associated Press and Dennis Romero contributed.

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