Armed with cell phones and connected through Facebook, bands of young people have been rushing into stores to steal goods or assaulting bystanders in a spate of recent "flash mob" incidents across the USA.
Philadelphia leaders imposed an early curfew on parts of the city this month after roving bands of teens beat and robbed bystanders during violent attacks across the city. This week, surveillance cameras caught several dozen youths swarming into convenience stores in Germantown, Md., and Washington, D.C., and stealing armfuls of snacks and drinks as the store clerk looked on helplessly.
The suspects in these crimes often connected via cell phones and share information on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook, police say.
How best to combat the technology-connected crimes -- and how far police agencies should reach into private online and mobile phone access -- are at the core of a growing debate among police officials, city leaders and civil rights activists. Everyone agrees: It`s uncharted territory for law enforcement.
"You`re looking at an emerging form of crime," says Sean Varano, a criminologist at Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I. "We don`t know what power these police agencies have to monitor these Web sites or where do reasonable expectations of privacy start. "
A recent survey of 106 retailers nationwide by the National Retailer Federation showed that 80% had experienced multiple-offender crimes in the past six months and one in 10 had been hit by a criminal flash mob, says Joseph LaRocca, a senior adviser with the group. "These crimes are not new," he says. "What`s new is the social network and Internet activity to coordinate these ad hoc attacks against stores." He adds: "We`re still trying to figure out how best to address these issues."
Addressing them is often tricky. Earlier this month, the Cleveland City Council proposed making...
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