The gang of thieves in the infamous November 20 Union Square flash-mob robbery apparently didn’t even know each other, as law enforcement officials now say the crew was recruited via the disappearing message app Snapchat.
In the 1988 crime spoof The Naked Gun, criminal mastermind Vincent Ludwig (Ricardo Montalban) says of his murder-by-hypnotism scheme, “There is even a more ideal assassin — one who doesn't know he's an assassin.”
A variation on this scheme may have been at play in the late November Union Square handbag heist, as well as a similar ransacking of a Nordstrom in Walnut Creek the following day, plus other coordinated retail robberies as far away as Minnesota. That is, the ideal member of a flash-mob shoplifting gang may be one who doesn’t know they are part of a flash-mob shoplifting gang, doesn’t know anyone else in the gang, and cannot testify against the higher-ups because they don’t know who the higher-ups are.
And a multi-county team of law enforcement officials suspects that may be how these mass retail thefts were structured. The Hill reports that the Union Square heist, plus several other similar recent jobs, were organized on the app Snapchat. Their reporting picks up on an original report in the Wall Street Journal (subscription paywall), saying that organized crime is particularly pleased with Snapchat as a tool, because of the anonymity and disappearing messages that it offers.
“This isn’t The Godfather by any stretch,” San Mateo County district attorney Steve Wagstaffe, told the Journal. “It’s the modern version of ‘Hey, there’s a party tonight’ and suddenly you have 100 kids showing up.”
This does explain the enormous age range between the San Francisco suspects. For their part, Snapchat parent company Snap tells the Journal they found no evidence of robberies being organized on their platform.
But does Snapchat even care? Sure seems that whenever someone gets busted for criminal behavior on Snapchat, it's law enforcement nabbing them, and not the company Snap. And we know that tech platforms play an important role in the organized retail theft ecosphere, which they never seem to crack down on, because investors gotta see those growth numbers. Snapchat has much more financial incentive to look the other way than to clamp down on this, so organizing a mass retail theft on the platform remains pretty much a snap.