A flash mob invaded a 7-11 convenience store in Germantown, Md., early Saturday morning, stole all the snacks and candy they could get their hands on, then left the store as quickly as they came.
"It was anarchy for 60 seconds," said Montgomery County Police spokesman Paul Starks. "We've counted at least 28 individuals we can see on the surveillance tape." Starks said police suspect the mob was organized using social media like Facebook or Twitter.
The term flash mob was first used to describe impromptu gatherings of people to sing or dance in a public space, alerted by text, email or Twitter, but the Germantown incident is just the latest in a summer when flash mobs have turned from spontaneous, fun events to outright felony.
On July 4 in the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights, a group of 1,000 youths organized through social networking sites to fight and disrupt an event. In Washington, D.C., a flash mob robbed a high-end clothing store earlier this summer.
On August 5, a flash mob stormed the fairgrounds at the Wisconsin state fair in Milwaukee. "My mom just got attacked by a flash mob," said a caller to 911. "Punched in the face for no reason. We need emergency help right away."
According to Brad Garrett, a former FBI special agent and now an ABC News consultant, "crowd mentality" takes over once a group has been gathered by cell phone. "People who would not otherwise rob or steal end up doing just that."
"These incidents can turn violent, they can injure customers, they can damage the store and then there's the financial losses the retailers suffer," said Joe La Rocca, spokesperson for the National Retail Federation. The NRF estimates that about one in ten stores has been the victim of a of a flash mob invastion and robbery. In most cases, by the time the police arrive, the mob is long gone, making for a long arduous process to identify and prosecute the culprits.
In Germantown, Md., police spokesman Starks says the store clerk pressed the silent alarm when he belatedly realized there was a robbery in progress, and a police cruiser responded in under a minute. But by then, the mob was gone.
Local school officials and merchants are working with the police to identify the suspect caught on tape, Starks said. "The surveillance video is very clear, and we already have a good idea of who some of these people are," he said.
"We are going after them all, and if we can identify the ringleaders, they are going to face some serious charges," Starks said.
Philadelphia Flash Mobs
Nowhere has the flash mob phenomenon been more popular than in the Philadelphia area. There, a man was assaulted by a group of about 30 who were believed to have gotten together through Twitter, according to the Associated Press. On June 23, a few dozen young people looted several hundred dollars worth of merchandise in the Philadelphia suburb of Upper Darby, Pa.
The surge in flash mob crime prompted Philadelphia to impose a curfew for all minors under the age of 18 in targeted enforcement districts.
"This nonsense must stop," Philadelphia Mayor Michael A. Nutter said. "If you wanna act like a butthead, your butt's gonna get locked up. If you wanna act like an idiot, move; we don't want you here anymore."
Frank Farley, a psychologist at Philadelphia's Temple University, says, "The age range is interesting – in most of these riots, it tends to be in the teenage to early 20's, by and large," he said. "That's a big age for thrill seeking and risk taking."
Whatever the reasons behind these flash mob felonies, local officials hope that the fad will die out quickly.
"The community is upset about this," Starks of the Montgomery County police said. "You look at that video and you just have to say, 'that's wrong.'"
In Phladelphia, there have been no more violent flash mobs after about 70 young people were detained and then released to their parents, with a warning.
"Parents who neglect their children," said Mayor Nutter, "don't know where they are, you're going to find yourself spending some quality time with your kids in jail together."