Got an honest face? You have a bright future in sneak-thievery.

Recently I bought my first laptop. However, I could have gotten one or more for free at the University of Washington. During the month before I left for Alaska, I was twice asked by library patrons if I’d watch their stuff while they went to the bathroom.

Of course I said “yes,” because it was a simple favor. But I could also have strolled out of Odegaard Undergraduate Library with a couple of nice computers plus whatever was in their backpacks.

On a third occasion I headed for the head myself and noticed that some trusting duckling had hung her backpack on a coat hook just inside the restroom. A smart phone was tucked into an outside pocket.

I waited by the pack for about 90 seconds, until the student emerged to wash her hands. “I’m not a thief, but I could have been,” I told her. “It’s really not a good idea to leave your bag unattended.”

She looked shocked – shocked! – to hear me suggest that any of her classmates could be malfeasors. This in spite of signs all over the library that say, “A second is all a thief needs.”

I look honest, and I am – but what if I weren’t?

Sure, I’d love it if we lived in a happy sunshiny paradise where doors are unlocked and car keys never get lost because they’re always in the ignition. A place where no one is a stranger and everyone shares equally. It probably rains gumdrops there, too.

Not going to happen. But what probably will happen is that people will keep asking me to watch their stuff. And why wouldn’t they? I don’t look like someone who’d lift your wallet or steal your smart phone. I look like a mom. Heck, to them I probably look like a grandmom.

(Which I’m old enough to be – in fact, when my grandmom was just two years older than I am now, she was a great-grandmom.)

Naivete is not limited to the young, however. I’ve seen laptops left in booths at Panera Bread and purses sitting unattended in shopping carts. While waiting for a plane, I heard a man loudly phoning in an order for flowers, actually announcing, “OK, I’ve got my card ready, it’s a Visa” before bellowing out the numbers.


Hang on to your stuff

Scariest of all are the times when women ask me if I’d watch their strollers – with babies in them! – while they take older kids into the restroom. Granted, it would be easier to walk out with someone’s iPhone than with someone’s iNfant. But I saw a case like that while I was a reporter at the Chicago Tribune.

A woman told her boyfriend she’d had his baby while he was in prison. Since he was due for release, she had to produce a young’un or lose her man. She was shrewd enough to know exactly where to look: the bus terminal, where she found herself an exhausted young mother with an infant and a toddler.

Faux mama befriended the real one, found out where the family was headed, and what do you know? She was going there, too! Why not ride with us, she suggested, and offered to hold the baby while the tired young mom went to the bathroom.

A couple of very anxious days later the child was located – but only because the new “grandmother” happened to see the infant’s photograph on the news.

Having your child stolen is unlikely. But there’s a pretty easy way to prevent it: Don’t trust someone you don’t know to watch your most precious possession. Or, for that matter, your laptop. A second really is all a thief needs. And sometimes, thieves look like moms.

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  1. Donna, you are so right! It only takes a second… and it amazes me how trusting people are.

    I am always amazed at the number of women who leave their purses sitting in their shopping carts at the store. It’s so easy for a thief to grab it before you even realize it is gone. In fact, it happened to my aunt last winter. Within a half-hour, the thief had produced a phony Illinois drivers license and had charged $1700 in purchases at Best Buy.

    I’d also recommend people be very careful about leaving their web browsers open in public places. I’ve known folks who have had obscene phrases typed into term papers (and didn’t check before they turned it in) and others who have had some pretty awful things posted to their Facebook accounts.

    The story about the child being stolen is REALLY scary.

    You just can’t be too careful!

  2. Yeah, that’s exactly what our society needs and we should be encouraging — more fear and less trust.

    The incidents you mention are some of the few things we have left that remind us the world isn’t an inherently evil place, where everyone you don’t know is out to take advantage of you.

    I bet for every kidnapping example like the one you mentioned, there are 50,000 counter-examples where people help each other out just because they’re legitimately decent people. Those don’t make the news, though.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Tyler: Well, of course not everyone is evil. And as noted, I’ve done my share of baby- and stuff-watching. However, to leave one’s purse in a shopping cart while perusing cans of soup is a really bad idea. The relatively few (I hope) bad apples can really ruin your day, as Christina’s comment illustrated.
      A few weeks ago someone went into my niece’s back yard and stole her son’s bike. It happened during broad daylight, as they say. No doubt 50,000 bikes weren’t stolen that day. But the loss of this one hit pretty hard.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  3. Well said! One of the community colleges here regularly sends out e-mails to students, faculty, and hangers-on reporting campus crime statistics. These often include backpacks lifted off library and student union tables, with the wallets and other valuables contained therein. The latest notice said someone had stolen the battery out of one of the laptops in a computer classroom.

    When I was a student, someone took one of my textbooks off a library table. When I went to the campus bookstore to buy a new one, what should I find on the shelf but MY book with my name in it and the notice I had printed on the inside cover: “This book is not for sale! Please do not buy it from anyone who offers to sell it.” I had to threaten to call the police and file charges of receiving stolen property before the bookstore manager gave it back to me.

  4. Jennifer

    Haha, I love this post. I walked thru Odegaard once (and I am not a student) and realized if I had quick hands I could pick up smart phones, expensive calculators, ipods, and so much more. I even heard of a girl who takes shoes that are left around UW.

  5. Scary as it is, thanks for bringing attention to the fact that we live in a world where, like you said, a second is all it takes. When I used to bartend, people would get rip-roaringly drunk and leave purses, phones, bags, books, laptops, keys and anything else you could possibly imagine on the bar while they went to the bathroom or out for a smoke. I wasn’t about the lecture my patrons about the dangers of leaving Stuff unattended, but drunken trust are two words that do not belong in a sentence together!
    But seriously, it *doesn’t* rain gumdrops here???

  6. I’ve had two portable CD players and a track jacket stolen when I inadvertently left them unattended at the gym. I have no illusions as to the honesty and ethics of my fellow man.


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