California has become a hotbed of large-scale ‘smash-and-grab’ looting raids on luxury stores, and security experts and officials alike say organized crime syndicates are often behind the carefully orchestrated break-ins, which are hurting retailers’ bottom lines, and terrifying workers and customers.
Ben Dugan, president of the Coalition of Law Enforcement and Retail, said sophisticated criminal networks recruit mainly young people, offering them $500 to $1,000 to steal specific merchandise from stores and then sell it online.
The frequency and scale of the ‘smash and grab’ operations are ratcheting up as the holiday shopping season is getting into full swing.
‘We´re not talking about someone who needs money or needs food. These are people who go out and do this is for high profit, and for the thrill,’ Dugan said.
A group of about 40 to 50 teenage shoplifters made off with an unknown amount of jewelry and other items in Hayward, California, on Sunday. Experts and officials say national crime networks are behind many of the ‘smash-and-grab ‘ operations
A suspect was seen running away with an armful of merchandise after stealing from a Louis Vuitton store in San Francisco’s Union Square on Friday night
Los Angeles police say at least 20 people used sledgehammers to break the glass at a Nordstrom on Monday night and ransack its shelves before fleeing
Police were able to pursue one of the getaway cars, which had fled onto the 110 Freeway
Police found bags of clothes with tags still on it when they searched the getaway car
Monday’s brazen thefts in Los Angeles come after three consecutive days of organized shoplifting in the Bay Area
The Bay Area has long been plagued by aggressive retail thefts, but this week Los Angeles also experienced a spate of ‘smash-and-grab’ incidents,’ with some 20 crooks ransacking a Nordstrom store at The Grove mall, and a separate group targeting a CVS pharmacy and getting away with more than $8,000 in cash.
Other major US cities have also seen a spike in store break-ins, including Chicago and its suburbs, where more than a dozen suspects attacked a Louis Vuitton store last week and stole more than $120,000 worth of high-end clothing and other merchandise.
California’s Proposition 47 – lighter sentences for thieves
Proposition 47 was passed by California voters on November 5, 2014.
It made some ‘non-violent’ property crimes, where the value of the stolen goods does not exceed $950, into misdemeanors.
It also made some ‘simple’ drug possession offenses into misdemeanors, and allows past convictions for these charges to be reduced to a misdemeanor by a court.
Under California law, though, if two or more person’s conspire to ‘cheat and defraud any person or any property, by any means which are in themselves criminal’ they can face no more than one year in county prison, a fine of $10,000 or a combination of the two.
The growing problem has been attributed to several key factors, including the involvement of sophisticated organized crime rings paying small-time crooks to carry out the thefts, police officers’ apparent reluctance to pursue retail criminals in the current political climate, prosecutors’ failure to prioritize larceny and theft, and the decriminalization of low-level offenses in some jurisdictions.
Best Buy CEO Corie Berry said this week that the situation has become so dire that her company is stepping up security measures to protect its staff and shoppers.
‘This is traumatizing for our associates and is unacceptable,’ Barry said on a call with analysts on Tuesday. ‘We are doing everything we can to try to create [an] as safe as possible environment.’
A day earlier, California Gov Gavin Newsom vowed to crack down on gangs of retail thieves, despite a controversial 2014 law – Proposition 47 – that barred prosecutors from charging suspected shoplifters accused of stealing less than $950 worth of merchandise with felonies.
‘For the low-level criminal, the benefit far outweighs the risk, since the threshold for a misdemeanor offense is $950, meaning that a person can steal up to that amount and only be charged with a misdemeanor,’ Lynda Buel, president of Ohio-based security consulting firm SRMC, told CNN.
‘People see the ability to commit these ‘smash-and-grab incidents’ knowing that there is little consequence, especially if the thefts are kept below the threshold of a felony offense,’ Buel added. ‘It’s easy, it’s fast, and the payback is good.’
Over the weekend, the San Francisco Bay Area saw a string of audacious ‘smash-and-grab’ robberies, including an incident involving a gaggle of hammer-wielding masked bandits who ransacked jewelry, sunglasses and clothing stores at the Southland Mall in the San Jose suburb of Hayward.
Dramatic footage released on Monday showed a group of about 40 to 50 robbers smashing glass display cases at Sam’s Jewelers at the mall at around 5.30pm on Sunday. Staffers are seen screaming in terror as the heist unfolded.
California Governor Gavin Newsom vowed on Monday to get tough with organized gangs of thieves who have ransacked and looted luxury retail stores in the San Francisco Bay Area
Around the same time on Sunday evening, packs of thieves ransacked a sunglasses store and a Lululemon store in San Jose, stealing nearly $50,000 in merchandise, San Jose police Sgt. Christian Camarillo said Monday.
The group that targeted the Lululemon store included two women and two men, including one who had a ‘visible gun in his waistband,’ he added.
On Saturday, police said as many as 80 suspects, some wearing ski masks and carrying crowbars, targeted a Nordstrom in the San Francisco suburb of Walnut Creek, assaulting employees and stealing merchandise before fleeing in waiting cars, police and witnesses said.
Two employees were assaulted and one was hit with pepper spray during what police called a ‘clearly a planned event.’ Walnut Creek police said they arrested two suspects and recovered a gun.
A day prior, roving bands of thieves brandishing hammers and crowbars hit a string of high-end retailers, including Louis Vuitton, Burberry and Bloomingdales, as well as a Walgreens pharmacy and several marijuana dispensaries, in the vicinity of Union Square in San Francisco, a high-end area popular with tourist that was crowded with holiday shoppers.
San Francisco has seen a dramatic increase in crime rates across the board, particularly in larceny thefts
Videos of the chaotic scene posted on social media by witnesses showed police officers dragging one suspect from a waiting car and people running with merchandise in their arms or dragging suitcases.
The ‘smash-and-grab’ operations are usually organized by local people who recruit their crews and send them to steal specific merchandise requested by criminal organizations throughout the country, Dugan said.
‘Crew bosses organize them, they’ll give him the crowbars, and in some cases even rent them cars, or provide them with escape routes or a list of products to actually go out and steal. It looks very chaotic but it’s actually very well organized,’ Dugan said.
Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul said in September that large-scale store thefts orchestrated by organized crime rings are costing retailers across the US an estimated $45billion in annual losses.
Best Buy CEO Corie Barry warned that businesses are in danger in the San Francisco area due to rampant looting
Raoul has formed the Organized Retail Crime Task Force comprised of public and private entities to tackle the problem head on.
‘These brazen, violent crimes are committed by sophisticated criminal organizations that are involved in drug trafficking, human trafficking and other serious crimes,’ Raoul said.
‘Even during the looting we saw last year, we came to understand that some of these criminal acts were not merely opportunistic, but organized in advance,’ he said.
‘The Organized Retail Crime Task Force will allow investigators and prosecutors in my office to better collaborate with our law enforcement partners and ensure cooperation between law enforcement, as well as retailers and online marketplaces, to protect communities, consumers and combat the rise in retail crime.’
Gov. Gavin Newsom said his office met with retailers over the weekend who asked for more police patrols.
‘You will see substantially more starting today, in and around areas that are highly trafficked and coming into the holiday season Black Friday in shopping malls,’ he told reporters Monday at an event in San Francisco.
He said the California Highway Patrol immediately stepped up patrols along nearby highway corridors following the thefts this weekend and asked local officials how they could help.
In July, Newsom signed a law that allows prosecutors to charge those who work with others to steal merchandise. He said this year’s state budget included millions of dollars for local officials to address retail theft and his January budget proposal will include an “exponential increase of support to help cities and counties.’
OAK BROOK, ILLINOIS: Surveillance footage from inside a Louis Vuitton store showed masked shoplifters, top right, pour into the store and grab handfuls of merchandise as customers ran away last week
‘My business has been broken into three times this year,’ he said. ‘I have no empathy, no sympathy for these folks, and they must be held to account.’ Newsom owns two wine shops in San Francisco.
Most of the ‘smash-and-grabs’ had been happening in stores near highways in suburbs where police response can be slower. But last year, the packs of robbers took advantage of BLM protests following the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis and ransacked stores in several cities, including San Francisco, Dugan said.
‘It was meant to look like looting, but it really wasn’t. It´s a criminal entity employing other people to steal for them so they can profit by selling it online,’ he said.
Retailers lose about $65billion each year to organized theft, the bulk stolen by professional thieves.
The National Retail Federation said a recent survey found stores are seeing an increase in organized thefts and perpetrators being more aggressive.
On Tuesday, Best Buy’s shares fell 16 per cent after the nation’s largest consumer electronics retail chain posted a drop in profit for the fiscal quarter, citing organized theft – especially in San Francisco.
‘We are definitely seeing more and more particularly organized retail crime and incidents of shrink in our locations,’ Barry, the company’s CEO, told analysts. ‘This is a real issue that hurts and scares real people.’
Barry warned that employees could start quitting their jobs, rather than face the threat of hammer- and crowbar-wielding thieves terrorizing stores in California with relative impunity due to lax shoplifting laws.
Best Buy’s top executive said the company is hiring security guards and keeping more products under lock and key.
Experts said state laws raising the threshold for what constitutes a felony and the ease of reselling stolen goods online are contributing to the increase in brash robberies.
Following Friday’s thefts, San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott said officers arrested six men and two women, all young adults, and seized two guns and two vehicles. They are mostly residents of the Bay Area and some are known to San Francisco police, Scott said, adding that he expects more suspects will be arrested in the coming days.
Car access to the streets in Union Square will soon be limited and the area will be flooded with police officers, Scott said.
‘We will do what we need to do to put an end to this madness,’ Scott said at a news conference Saturday.