The odds of being caught up in a smash-and-grab robbery during the holiday season are small — though if you were to watch television news in the summer you might think otherwise.
The brazen robberies, which seemed to peak between July and September, are still on the minds of shoppers, retailers, and police with the arrival of the holiday shopping season, when stores are packed with shoppers and merchandise.
Smash-and-grabs are high profile robberies where groups of thieves, often brandishing hammers, crowbars, and other tools, strike higher-end retail stores and make off with merchandise. Sometimes these are organized crews, sometimes they are simply like-minded people, called flash mobs, that appear after online notices. Many times, the gear they steal is resold to lower-end sellers.
SafeOC, a localized version of the national “If You See Something, Say Something” crime fighting and antiterrorism public awareness campaign, has a wide array of tips you can use to help keep Orange County safe. Although there’s not much members of the public can do to prevent such crimes once they’re unleashed, short of calling 911, you can play an important role in the aftermath.
If you are a witness to a smash-and-grab, provide police with as detailed information as possible. Remember the 5 Ws from SafeOC: who, what, when, where and why. Your observations can be critical in helping law enforcement find and prosecute the crooks. Most important, however, is to make sure you are safe before reporting the crime.
Additionally, since much of the merchandise is sold to shady retailers, if you find something online or in person that seems too good to be true, it is worth a call to local law enforcement to share your suspicions.
Smash-and-grab robberies are certainly dramatic – particularly when they happen in broad daylight – and have ignited political and crime debate. However, they are nowhere near as ubiquitous as media and social platforms may make them seem.
The nonpartisan Public Policy Institute reported smash-and-grabs, which are felonies if they exceed $950, involve violence or threats, or are part of a conspiracy, are much less common than nonviolent shoplifting and commercial burglaries. The incidence of statewide commercial robberies was 53 per 100,000 residents in 2022, or about 25 percent of shoplifting and commercial burglaries, according to the Public Policy Institute. That said, the commercial robbery rate has increased by 13.3 percent since 2019, with an uptick of 9.1 percent in 2022.
For anyone who finds themselves caught in the midst of a smash-and-grab, law enforcement and security experts agree you should not take enforcement or prevention into your own hands.
In modern times, when no place is immune to violence, experts stress the importance of situational awareness.
“You need to actually look around and observe people,” said Sgt. Gus Gonzalez, a SWAT sergeant with Tustin Police Department. “These days people have their heads in their phones or computers. They forget to look around and look at their surroundings. If you see something suspicious, think to yourself, ‘Maybe I should continue to watch this person.’”
The mantra “Run, Hide, Fight” is used by the FBI. Although the strategy was adopted for active shooter scenarios, it holds as a strategy for other violent crime circumstances. Getting away from the situation is the prime thing.
“Gain as much distance as you can from the people who are committing the crimes,” security expert Evan Fraser told KRON in San Francisco when talking about smash-and-grab scenarios.
Although smash-and-grab attacks rarely include handguns, robbers often have other implements that can be used as weapons, such as crowbars, bats, and batons. Also there is risk of injury from flying glass and collisions with perpetrators that can be dangerous.
If you can, find a safe place to hide or shelter away from the crime.
“Put items in front of you, hard items, you know, lots of clothing, whatever the case is, whatever type of furniture they have in this particular store,” Fraser told KRON. “Those types of things will give you a little bit of concealment in terms of hiding from them seeing you.”
As a last resort, the FBI states, you should fight back. You should try to find something to use as a weapon to incapacitate the attacker.
Law enforcement responds
In September, California announced the state will spend $267 million on increased patrols as well as for surveillance equipment and other activities to crack down on smash-and-grab crimes.
“Enough with these brazen smash-and-grabs — we’re ensuring law enforcement agencies have the resources they need to take down these criminals,” Gov. Gavin Newsom stated.
Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer told would-be thieves, “I will throw the book at you, and I will charge you with everything I can charge you with.”
And progress is being made. In October, the Irvine Police Department arrested a gang of four suspected thieves in a string of smash-and-grabs. In August, several members of Orange County’s congressional delegation said they are working on ways to combat flash-mob style retail thefts and a wave of home burglaries.
“We’re seeing these terrible images of stores being broken into,” said Rep. Young Kim, R-Anaheim Hills, as quoted by the Orange County Register. “We’ve been seeing this maybe, once-a-week, in the past, but now we’re seeing this every day, too frequently.”
For residents of Orange County, the memory of a skein of heists remains fresh.
In August, a group of five to 10 thieves ran into a temporary Gucci store in South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa and made off with an estimated $100,000 in handbags before escaping to waiting cars in the parking lot. The theft occurred around 7 p.m. while the store was open and customers were inside.
Also in August, a man and woman allegedly stole several thousand dollars in merchandise from a Nordstrom at the Irvine Spectrum, grabbing armloads of merchandise and fleeing in a white Kia Forte, according to the Irvine Police Department.
Also in Irvine, Jewels By Alan in the Irvine Park Place shopping center told police three hammer-wielding thieves took more than $1 million worth of merchandise less than a week-and-a-half after another crew was arrested for a heist at Kay Jewelers in the Irvine Spectrum.
Meanwhile, across the state, police agencies are making arrests with task forces and detective units targeting the wave. Investigators are monitoring social media platforms and the dark web and watching resale markets where stolen goods are received.
Flash mob-style attacks are not a recent or uniquely Californian phenomenon, having been seen across the U.S. for more than a decade. If you are among the unlucky few to chance a smash-and-grab, it’s best to heed the advice of Fraser and, “don’t think about playing hero, get out of the way of the criminals.”
Lear more about crime and prevention with SafeOC.