String of Thefts at High-End San Francisco Stores Have Officials Wary of Coordinated Effort

Several robberies were carried out over the weekend at high-end stores in and around the San Francisco Bay Area with thousands of dollars of jewelry, sunglasses, clothes and other merchandise stolen.

According to The Associated Press, law enforcement officials believe the thefts to be the work of organized crime networks recruiting young people to steal valuable merchandise, then sell it online.

"We're not talking about someone who needs money or needs food. These are people who go out and do this for high profit, and for the thrill," said Ben Dugan, president of the Coalition of Law Enforcement and Retail.

The people recruited to perform the thefts are paid $500 to $1,000 to take as much merchandise as they can or steal specific items, and bring it to certain people who then send it to other parts of the country to be resold, the AP reported.

The robberies in San Francisco started around 8 p.m. Friday, when the Union Square Louis Vuitton, Burberry and Bloomingdale's, among other stores, were invaded by people stealing merchandise and running to nearby cars.

The so-called criminal flash mobs are a growing trend designed to look chaotic, but law enforcement officials say they are quite the opposite and can also hide in and around other events.

During the protests across the country and in San Francisco in the summer of 2020 following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, Dugan said similar thievery took place in multiple cities.

"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," Dugan said.

For more reporting from The Associated Press, see below.

San Francisco, Robberies, Louis Vuitton
Police officers and emergency crews park outside the Louis Vuitton store in San Francisco's Union Square Monday after looters ransacked businesses. Groups of thieves, some carrying crowbars and hammers, smashed glass cases and window displays, ransacking high-end stores throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, stealing jewelry, sunglasses, suitcases and other merchandise before fleeing in waiting cars. Danielle Echeverria/San Francisco Chronicle via AP

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 flash mobs 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.

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."

"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 flash mob robberies had been happening in stores near highways in suburbs where police response can be slower.

Retailers lose about $65 billion each year to organized theft, the bulk stolen by professional thieves. Criminal flash mobs are part of a growing national trend, he said.

Last week, fourteen suspects went into a Louis Vuitton store in Oak Brook, a Chicago suburb, pulled large plastic bags from their coats and filled them with clothing and other items, stealing more than $120,000 in merchandise, police said.

The National Retail Federation said a recent survey found stores are seeing an increase in organized thefts and perpetrators being more aggressive.

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.

Hours later, about 80 people, some wearing ski masks and wielding crowbars, ransacked a Nordstrom at an outdoor mall in Walnut Creek 20 miles (32 kilometers) northeast of San Francisco, 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" Saturday in the downtown shopping district in the city. Walnut Creek police said they arrested two suspects and recovered a gun.

Similar scenes of young people wearing hoodies and masks were repeated Sunday in jewelry, sunglasses and clothing stores in the cities of Hayward and San Jose, police said.

In Hayward, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) east of San Francisco, about 10 people walked into a jewelry store inside a mall Sunday evening, smashed glass cases, and stole jewelry. Witnesses said the thieves then got into waiting cars.

Around the same time, 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.

San Francisco, Robberies, Louis Vuitton
Competing words are seen spray painted on boarded up windows, following a protest over the police killing of George Floyd, outside City Hall in San Francisco, California on May 31, 2020. Law enforcement officials now say what was called "looting" in 2020 was likely more organized "crime flash mobs" where organized crime groups recruit mostly young people to steal merchandise they can sell easily online. Philip Pacheco/AFP via Getty Images