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A second is all a thief needs

Want to lose your wallet or your laptop? Assume everyone's as nice as you are.

By Donna_Freedman Oct 18, 2010 1:17PM

Earlier this year I bought my first laptop. However, I could have gotten one or more for free at the University of Washington

During my three years as a "nontraditional" student (that's the college euphemism for "old"), I was regularly asked by library patrons if I'd watch their stuff while they went to the bathroom.

For intelligent people, they're pretty dumb. Or maybe the world hasn't kicked them in the teeth yet.

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

I could have had a nice lunch or gone shopping with their student IDs, which work like cash. And if their smart phones or laptops held enough personal info, I could have committed identity theft.

I graduated in December 2009, but still use the library. And people are still asking me to keep an eye on their belongings.

Late last spring 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.

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 me, 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.

Donna Freedman is the MSN Money Living With Less columnist and also blogs at Smart Spending and Surviving and Thriving.


More from MSN Money:

Oct 20, 2010 4:48PM
@2lgit: You could have emptied the cash register -- and also gotten all the fortune cookies you wanted.
@cpstl: You could have gone shopping. (Wonder if anyone else on the bus did?)
Glad you're both honest.
Thanks for reading.
Best regards,
Donna Freedman

Oct 19, 2010 1:51PM
I have a very true story to tell along these lines.  Years ago, I use to frequent a small local Chinese restaurant.  I guess because I was such a frequent customer, the owner one day, while I was there eating my lunch, asked if I could watch the place while he went to pick up his wife. There were no other employees there at the time.  Now, although I was a frequent customer, we weren't on friendly enough terms that we knew each other's names.  Anyhoo, to make this even funnier and stranger, the phone rang while he was out and I answered it.  It was his wife wanting to know if he was on his way to pick her up.  Not once did she ask who I was or why I was answering the phone.  That happened more than ten years ago and it still makes me laugh.
Oct 19, 2010 6:09AM
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.   Idiot


I had the same experience on a city bus, from a woman who was placing an order from a catalog. She gave her Visa number, 3 digit security code, expiration date, name, address, and phone number.  As I read this I see a link to a story entitled "Guard Your ID: Shredding's a Start" - Keeping your mouth shut helps, too.  

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