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By Julia Harte
Nov 23 (Reuters) - A Nordstrom department store in a Los Angeles mall on Monday night became the latest target in a string of "smash-and-grab" robberies that have hit luxury retailers in California and Illinois as the holiday shopping season approaches.
The Los Angeles Police Department said it had taken three suspects into custody. Local reports said as many as 20 people may have been involved in the break-in and theft.
Law enforcement authorities say they are alarmed by the brazen nature of the burglaries — some involving dozens of people — which have targeted high-end stores in the two states in the past week.
Videos from the chaotic burglaries, called "smash-and-grabs", have flooded social media in recent days, showing masked figures breaking into stores, running out with bags of merchandise, and fleeing in cars idling outside.
The San Francisco Bay Area has been particularly hard hit given the high density of luxury retailers. The area is one of the most affluent in the country, with a median household income nearly double the national rate, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
About 80 people entered a Nordstrom department store in the East Bay Area city of Walnut Creek on Saturday night, stealing merchandise until police arrived and arrested three people, according to a Walnut Creek Police Department news release.
"Police are investigating what was clearly a planned event," the release said.
California Governor Gavin Newsom has directed the California Highway Patrol to increase their presence near major retail areas.
Experts on retail crime say the rise of organized crime before the holiday season is not a new phenomenon, but it has gotten more aggressive in recent years, in part because retailers have enhanced their security measures.
"Retail crime groups need to stock up for the holidays just like legitimate retailers do," said Joseph LaRocca, a Los Angeles-based theft-prevention consultant and former vice president of loss prevention at the National Retail Federation.
A 2021 National Retail Federation survey found 57% of responding U.S. retailers said the pandemic had increased the risk of organized retail crime.
The groups behind the recent robberies are sophisticated organizations, "not your normal shoplifter that's in and out stealing little items," he said. But that can make it easier for investigators to follow the money to the leaders of such operations.
LaRocca also said criminals may have been emboldened by the passage of laws lessening penalties for some crimes, such as California's Proposition 47, which reclassified certain felony offenses as misdemeanors in 2014.
But Charis Kubrin, a professor of criminology, law and society at the University of California-Irvine, said she has conducted studies showing that increases in violent crime are not linked to criminal justice reform measures like Proposition 47.
Kubrin said it was difficult to explain the source of the current organized retail crime wave in California and other states.
"Between the pandemic and economic challenges and issues between the police and communities, there are a lot of factors happening at the same time that make it difficult to single out one factor," Kubrin said. (Reporting by Julia Harte in New York; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)