It Can Happen To You
October 17, 2004
Two weeks ago our car was broken into at a park. Laptop, wallet, keys, and more stolen. We didn't think it could happen to us. We thought we were playing it safe. Oh, and my system backups were sorely inadequate.
The Twin Cities are renowned for their park systems. In St. Paul, the keystone park is Como Park, instituted in 1878. Someday perhaps I'll write a bit more about the Park, which is a wonderful place. Central to the park's existence is Como Lake, one of the 11,000+ lakes in Minnesota. Circumference is roughly 1.6 miles, with dual paved trails for walking/jogging or biking/rollerblading. Canadian geese, pied-bill grebes, malards, lesser black-backed sea gulls, and muskrats are amongst the visible inhabitants, joined undoubtedly by plenty of fish, turtles, and the occasional dog. The park is about a mile away and the round-trip makes for an excellent walk or jog from home.
Sadly, it turns out that it is the single place in western Saint Paul where a person is most likely to have his/her car broken into, according to the investigating police sergeant.
An Evening Stroll
We found that out the hard way. After a night out studying/working, we stopped by the park on the way home two weeks ago (10:30 PM), parked, smiled at (or ignored) the various people walking their pets and sitting on benches. No, there weren't many people there, but we certainly weren't alone. We parked near the pavilion building, under bright light, and had nothing in plain view in the car.
But that last fact was due to my intuition saying, oh, let's put our bags in the trunk, not leave them in plain sight! And then we took our stroll around the lake, returning at most 25 minutes later (we were walking at a brisk space, particularly since the wind was a bit sharp that evening). We opened the trunk to get something out of one of the bags — and stared in absolute shock. The bags were gone! With no other evidence (at this point) that anything was wrong. Utter disbelief; the very idea that the car had been broken into could barely register in my mind. I go around to look in the car to see if I was crazy in thinking that I had indeed placed my bag in the trunk. I unlock the door, open, and now stare in horror, for the seat is filled with glass from the passenger side window.
We had a few valuable items stolen. We had some ID and credit cards lost and other items. We're still in the process of replacing everything, and State Farm processed everything swiftly. But we're short $500 (deductible), time, and a bit of innocence. Apparently we had too much of that and could afford to lose a little. Thank God we were physically unharmed, as was the car (other than a broken window). What idiots to park in a nearly-empty parking lot at night and trust that everything would be okay! What idiots to not realize there could be people watching us put our bags in the trunk, thus indicating that the bags had something of value!
I finally dug up the serial number for my iBook last weekend, and called in to the police investigator. They have a nice system that queries a database of serial numbers for computers sold at pawn shops. Sadly it has not shown up yet. From the sergeant, who is in charge of the western half of St. Paul, I learned two interesting things, about theft at Como Park and about the use of stolen credit cards.
First: as I indicated earlier, Como Park has more break-ins than anywhere else in this side of the city, 20-30 per month. He told me that he has posted officers in uniform, in plain clothes, on horseback, and nothing has mitigated the problem. What is truly surprising about these crimes is that most of them actually occur during broad daylight: the most larcenous times are 7-9 AM and around noon. Broad daylight! That of course makes me feel like less of an idiot for being there at night. And certainly makes me more wary of visiting the park in general, though it won't make me stop going (but the weather might).
Second: apparently a favorite trick of petty thieves is to take their stolen credit cards to a gas station and offer to fill up peoples' tanks for a small fee. That is, someone pulls up, hands the guy a $10, and he puts $15-$20 of gas in the car on your bill. Incredulously I asked, "who would do that? Just give a random guy cash to fill up the car?" "Taxi drivers are the worst offenders," the officer replied in his non-chalant, that's-the-way-things-are, voice.
After taking care of credit cards and online passwords (just in case any were accidentally saved on the laptop's hard drive), the next task was restoring my backups to our little-used old desktop. And that's when I discovered that in my haste I had forgotten to fully backup my computer before we moved. I had intended to do so of course, and managed to back up some of my MP3s and all of my wife's documents from her computer (which we gave away).
For weeks I had been meaning to get a regular routine underway. Best of intentions, truly. But fruitless.
The saving grace is that most of what I have done over the six months since my last full backup was either not a major loss or had been posted to a website somewhere. But of course there were a few things that were kept private, and there were a few e-mails that I would have preferred not to have lost.
And now I can't get the CDRW on the desktop to work properly in Linux. I love ya Linux, but that's why I bought a Mac for my laptop. I was tired of messing around with settings and compiling programs and all that. Yeah, it could be fun and challenging. But in the end, I just wanted my system to work. Without hassle.
I'll figure it out soon enough. And I should have a new iBook sometime next week (Apple is taking their sweet time shipping it, much to my annoyance. "Ships in 3-5 business days" turns out to mean 10).
So please, please, don't think your car is safe. Read the signs that say "don't leave valuables in your car". And listen to the geeks who tell you to back up regularly.