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Teen ‘flash mob’ robberies on Michigan Avenue on the rise

Recent robberies several Michigan Avenue shops by teens has brought an increased awareness Chicago Police Wednesday May 18 2011. |

Recent robberies at several Michigan Avenue shops by teens has brought an increased awareness to Chicago Police on Wednesday, May 18, 2011. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: June 22, 2011 6:55PM

At a mall outside Milwaukee, parents must escort their teens on weekends because of rampant shoplifting there.

In St. Louis, Las Vegas and Philadelphia, text-messaging “flash mobs” of youths have swooped into stores, stealing merchandise and running away.

And here in Chicago, shoplifting arrests of juveniles have jumped in the police district that includes the Magnificent Mile — even though retail-theft arrests as a whole have fallen slightly.

Chicago’s juvenile theft problem gained a high profile earlier this year when stores on North Michigan Avenue were repeatedly targeted by large groups of young shoplifters.

In January, 11 teens yanked clothes off the racks of The North Face, Filene’s Basement and AX Armani Exchange and ran away with the loot, but were quickly arrested. Police believe they coordinated the attack through text messages. One young thief yelled “Snatch!” to initiate the shoplifting. Another shouted “meet you on the Red Line!”

In the Near North police district, which includes North Michigan Avenue, overall retail-theft arrests were down about 2 percent in the first four months of 2011, compared with the same period last year. But juvenile shoplifting arrests were up at least 10 percent, said Kenneth Angarone, commander of the district.

Most of those juveniles were taken to the police station for “station adjustments” and released to their parents, Angarone said.

Police said they have been monitoring social networking sites, boosted the presence of officers on North Michigan Avenue and worked with stores to improve security.

As a result, there have been fewer cases of flash mobs targeting Mag Mile stores in recent months, Angarone said. But smaller groups — of two or three teens at a time — are continuing to shoplift in the area, he said.

“Is there an epidemic? No,” said John C. Chikow, president of the Greater North Michigan Avenue Association. “Is there an issue? Absolutely.”

Chikow said Chicago’s shoplifting problem mimics what’s going on in other big cities. Still, he said juvenile shoplifting attacks are “periodic” here.

“It’s not like every Friday and Saturday night kids are running into a store on the Avenue and taking stuff,” he said. “But yes, this still happens.”

Chikow said he thinks such shoplifting is the latest form of thrill-seeking for juveniles. He pointed to one teen who was arrested for shoplifting recently. When his parents picked him up at the police station, they said they were perplexed because they had taken him to the same store to shop the previous week.

“They said he didn’t have a reason to steal anything,” Chikow said.

Angarone said parents need to watch for their kids coming home with clothes or other merchandise they cannot afford. Parents also need to monitor their kids’ social-networking activities, he said.

“This is a parental problem more than anything else,” Angarone said.

Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), whose ward includes the Mag Mile, said some of the shoplifting involves a “highly coordinated attempt by adult criminals to recruit juveniles” — especially young women. Prosecutors said that is possible, but no adults have been charged in connection with juvenile flash-mob thefts. Still, officials are watching closely to see if any of the loot is winding up on eBay or secondhand stores. Reilly said the problem is not limited to the Magnificent Mile, but affects shopping centers across the city. “It’s the latest brand of retail theft,” he said.

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