How To End ‘Flash Mob’ Hits? Good Parenting.

Isn’t technology great? I often marvel at how computers and smartphones have made our lives so much easier. But technology also has its downside: viruses, privacy concerns and even criminal uses, of course. This is where parents can play a critical, non-technological role.

Social media sites such as Twitter are increasingly being used to stage “flash mobs.” No, not the innocent, fun public dance group routines that gained popularity on YouTube. Today, criminal flash mobs are becoming a daily menace, and they’ve even shown up in the London riots.

A large group of kids, using a social networking site, select a time and retail outlet to rob en masse. The mob converges and quickly overwhelms store clerks before scattering with stolen merchandise.

This week, a mob robbed a 7-Eleven in Maryland. They’ve also hit Chicago, Washington, Las Vegas and other cities across the USA. Irate Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter recently chastised black teens for his city’s flash mob problem, saying, “You have damaged your own race.”

The trend’s timing couldn’t be worse for retailers, already suffering in the wake of the Great Recession. Of 129 retail outlets surveyed by the National Retail Federation, almost 95% say they have been victims of organized criminals in the past year — the highest in the survey’s history. And to add technological insult to injury, the Internet makes it easy for these kids to sell the goods. So retailers are fighting back with more anti-theft technology and partnerships to help identify thieves who resell stolen goods. Local police, with the FBI’s help, also have begun monitoring social media sites more closely.

But perhaps the best deterrent to flash mobs doesn’t require technology at all. I ran across a TV news story in Milwaukee about a mother, identified only as “Kizzy.” She told a reporter that she watched a security video of more than 20 kids ransacking a BP gas station convenience store. She not only saw her 15-year old son, but also her 13-year-old daughter in the mob. The next day, she walked into a police station and turned in her children. Three other parents did, too.

In Philadelphia last year, police received an anonymous tip from a parent that a flash mob was planned for South Street that night, so police were ready. This spring, quick-thinking security guards in Chicago tried to lock the doors behind a mob, holding them until police arrived and arrested the kids.

Law enforcement and retailers will clearly lead the way in snuffing out these marauding criminal enterprises. But a sharp-eyed and principled parent might be the best deterrent of all.

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