Flash Mobs as Cover for Criminal Activity

October 20 2008 / by Alvis Brigis
Category: Security   Year: 2008   Rating: 3

Witnessing the rapid spread of the Flash Mob phenomenon, fueled by emerging driver organizations like Improv Everywhere, it occurred to me that these increasingly frequent and massive events could be used as cover for various forms of criminal activity. The first scenario that popped into my head was that of a bank robber arranging such a coordinated diversion to cover his or her tracks.

For example, imagine if the following flash mob (arranged in San Francisco just two weekends ago) was diverted to surround or walk through a bank or other burglary target:

A clever criminal dressed in bright red could then use such a crowd as cover for a quick escape.

Just how feasible is such a scenario?

As it turns out, a small-scale and version of this plan was successfully executed up in Monroe, Washington just two weeks ago.

According to local news channel King 5:

[A] brazen crook apparently used a Craigslist ad to hire a dozen unsuspecting decoys to help him make his getaway following a robbery outside a bank on Tuesday. He then made his escape in an inner tube on the Skykomish River.

The burglar’s ad called required respondents to don a yellow vest, safety goggles, a respirator mask and blue shirt and show up near the Monroe Bank of America at 11am. For the prospect of a $28.50/hour rate, 12 men showed up at exactly that time, providing ideal cover for the thief who was dressed in a similar manner.

The thief has yet to be identified. And I’d be willing to bet that we’ll be seeing some copy-cat attempts over the coming months.

So long as no one gets hurt, this sort of crime at least has some sinister entertainment value. I mean, to cap it off by floating away on an inner tube??

Now I am convinced that the truth is in fact stranger than fiction.

Big thanks to future blogger John Heylin for the Monroe burglary link.

Comment Thread (7 Responses)

  1. You know Alvis, this phenomenon has potential for seriously nasty variation. It’s not hard to imagine someone shooting several of the respondents (or detonating a bomb), then robbing a bank under cover of the resulant confusion.

    I agree with your evaluation of this particular instance, the nature of the getaway was humorous, but I expect emulators will be less considerate in future.

    Anyone have any info on how difficult a process would be required to identify the organiser of a flash mob? Conversely, how possible is it to implicate someone else for the deed?

    Posted by: Will   October 21, 2008
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  2. I like flash mobs because they get people out and interacting with people they don’t already know, hopefully building friendships and community. I’m sad it is being abused, but one possible solution is to only have real flash mobs in parks. You can’t rob a park. Get the word out about that and the copy cat robbers will have a harder time.

    Posted by: Mielle Sullivan   October 21, 2008
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  3. @ Mielle

    ... but one possible solution is to only have real flash mobs in parks. You can’t rob a park. Get the word out about that and the copy cat robbers will have a harder time.

    A few points in response.

    The first part of your reaction sort of defeats the underlying inspiration driving flash mobs, doesn’t it? I have no direct experience of the activity, but I understand that at least one of the purposes for organising an event is basic 1st Ammendment expression at a relavent location to the viewpoint being expressed.

    Second, while robbing a park indeed seems financially unrewarding, the fear I raised was that such an event would be used to distract official reaction away from the robbery being staged some relatively short distance away from the attack. The purpose is to add several minutes to official response to the robbery, that’s all.

    My final point harks back to my original concern. A park (or any open space really) is an ideal location to arrange the type of atrocity I suggested. Without getting too specific, open access with essentially no security during early AM darkness, ample open sightlines, numerous potential exit routes from the area in the immediate aftermath. If I were psychotic enough to attempt such a thing, the potential of a 6 figure (or “only” in the multiple 5 figure range) payday would certainly be worth a couple day’s preparation, I think.

    We agree it’s a perversion of a well-intended, nice idea.

    Posted by: Will   October 21, 2008
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  4. @ Will – The very negative scenario that you mentioned did also cross my mind, made me sick just thinking about it. A flash mob is a dream situation/target for extremists looking to cause maximum damage.

    If flash mobs are to continue growing over the next 10 years they’ll probably need to develop security systems / protocols to counteract their vulnerability.

    I wonder how many flash mob get-togethers they have in the Middle East?

    Posted by: Alvis Brigis   October 21, 2008
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  5. I had never heard of the phrase flash mobs before I read this article. The idea does sound like it has its benefits but, as Will said, future events could be much grimmer than this incident. I hope it won’t be the case..

    Posted by: fantasywriter   October 21, 2008
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  6. Already taking place. Check it out

    Posted by: John Heylin   October 21, 2008
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  7. While I have no problem with us talking about this..I am just not going to live in fear that a flash mob might be a criminal haven.

    People should have the right to assemble anywhere they want, a park or otherwise, and if a criminal exploits the group to to rob or mame, then we should investigate and prosecute as usual, but not change our behavior.

    Flash mobs are usually ideally suited for parks, they are different from protests or rallies. But Alvis is right they should be able to happen anywhere. I would just be suspicious of a flash mob meeting in front of a bank or something like that. Just seems like common sense to me.

    Posted by: Mielle Sullivan   October 21, 2008
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