There are many films, too many to name and I am sure each one of us have our favorites, about grand heists, where an elaborate plan is made to steal something extremely valuable. The films are similar in the way that the place to be burglarized is carefully cased to take place when the place is closed, and the details of the security precautions carefully noted so as to find a way to enter and take take the goods without alarms going off and escape without being detected until much later when the thieves are well away from the scene of the crime and have got rid of any incriminating evidence and disposed to the goods. Much of the fun in these films (such as in The Italian Job) is seeing the planning and execution of the heist with split-second precision.
The recent spate of thefts in California and other major cities are nothing like that. Instead what we have is a large group of people wearing masks who arrive in a convoy of cars at high-end stores like Nordstrom’s in broad daylight and rampage through the stores in what is a crude smash-and-grab operation, taking valuable items as they go, breaking glass cases if need to to get at them. They then rush out of the store and into their cars and dash away before the police arrive.
In recent weeks, groups of people, some armed with hammers and crowbars, have smashed their way into closed high-end stores in cities across California and made off with tens of thousands of dollars in goods, authorities said.
Over the weekend, groups of people robbed luxury stores in several Bay Area cities, stealing jewelry, sunglasses, suitcases and other merchandise before fleeing in cars. On Sunday, 30 to 40 people tried to rob the RealReal clothing boutique in Palo Alto. On Monday night, about 20 people struck a Nordstrom store at the Grove retail and entertainment complex in Los Angeles and fled with about $5,000 worth of merchandise, police said. And in Santa Rosa, four young men ran into an Apple Store on Wednesday morning and fled with $20,000 in goods, police said.
Here is video of some of the thefts.
While the sheer brazenness of the thefts is breathtaking, one wonders how smart this is as a strategy. For one thing, we live in an era of ubiquitous surveillance cameras in most high-end stores and in parking lots and streets. While the thieves are masked and they may even try to hide their car license plates, it may still be possible to identify them. Furthermore, the more people who are involved in a crime, the more likely it is that someone will give the game away, even inadvertently. As the saying goes, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
The stolen items are brand name items like purses, clothing, and sunglasses which presumably the thieves are not taking for their own use, so they have the problem of how to convert the stolen goods into cash. The suspicion seems to be that the thieves will try to sell them online. Even if investigators monitor online sales, it may be difficult to tell if any given item offered for sale was stolen. But if investigators track someone down and that person cannot explain how they got so many items that were recently reported stolen, it could make life difficult for them. The efficient way the good were taken suggests that the thieves did case the place by acting as ordinary shoppers and noting what they wanted to take. That means they may be on surveillance cameras from earlier.
But I think the biggest risk to the thieves is their getaway vehicles. Those are hard to disguise. People are already getting caught.
On Wednesday, five people pleaded not guilty to felony charges involving thefts in San Francisco. Nine people have been charged in connection with Friday night’s robberies in the Bay Area city. .
Police in Palo Alto announced two women were arrested in connection with Sunday night’s attempt to rob the RealReal store. The women were stopped in a car where police said they found at least $15,000 in clothes from a second RealReal location that was burglarized in Larkspur earlier that night.
The big splashy thefts in major cities seem to be spawning smaller imitations. In Monterey, a group of four people, two men and two women, stormed into a shop in a mall close to where I live and ran off with $30,000 worth of sunglasses.
Police said four people walked into the store just after Noon and stole $30,000 worth of sunglasses. The store manager, Shauna Weirich, said the thieves were in and out in less than two minutes.
“They just knew what to do,” said Weirich. “No rhyme or reason for it they just knew what to do, when to do it and how to get the most out of what they were doing.”
Police said they are now reviewing video recorded by a security camera at the mall entrance to see if they can get a license plate number for the getaway car.
The thieves are two men and two women in their early to mid-twenties, according to police. Investigators did not release any other details about the suspects.
What puzzles me is the high-risk, low-reward nature of these thefts. Take the item above of about 20 people stealing $5,000 worth of merchandise. Even if they were sold online at full retail price, which is unlikely, that works out to only about $250 per person while they are risking serious prison time for armed robbery.