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Bonnie & Clyde, Redux

I suppose it was inevitable though it hadn’t happened to me even once in 72 years of life that included living, working, studying, or visiting 27 U.S. states and 13 countries. Somebody ripped off my debit card which, despite my daughter’s admonitions, I use for everything. Why use the seductive medium of a credit card? I’ve always preferred to use a debit card now that a glass case is being readied in the Smithsonian for paper checks. But whatever you use to buy whatever you buy, that’s not the interesting part of this story.

My last legit debit was to the local Safeway, after which the card itself mysteriously disappeared. Poof! It wasn’t turned in at Safeway, where a friendly checker flipped through a locked drawerful of forgotten cards (this is a senior community) after my credit union called to ask if I had spent $900 and change at the San Ramon Walmart superstore, an accurately spotted anomaly on my credit union’s part. I had not. The last time I was in a Walmart was to buy an ice chest at the Ukiah Walmart many moons ago. There aren’t any Walmarts within 10 miles of here so Target is the local go-to equivalent. This courtesy call prompted me to boot up my account to check out what had first appeared to be a one-off, only to face, with mounting horror, an avalanche of unauthorized debits totaling nearly 7-grand, including recently deposited tax refunds. In our household we collectively though futilely racked our frazzled brains about where the damned card had been stolen, which is what humans do after the horse has long escaped from the barn. Must be in our DNA.

Next stop was my credit union, where I spent two long hours going through a dozen fraudulent charges totaling the aforementioned 7-grand. My helpful rep spent a good while on the phone talking with Walmart security and others to piece together details that, whatever the unlikely odds, might lead to the identification and hopeful apprehension of the perp(s). 

As an American living through these fraught days I know of course that there are cameras everywhere, ubiquitous eyes always on the alert for infractions large and small. But when the credit union rep told me I’d have photos of the thieves within minutes, a cloud of dread settled over me. Please, I thought quietly, don’t let it be an impoverished single mother trying to feed her kids or a young homeless person black, white, or other. I know, theft is theft and as such its legal consequences should be blind, but there’s often a backstory other than covetous greed. I needn’t have worried. The thieving couple in the photos, a white middle-aged man and woman, could have been Ma and Pa Kettle, even with glasses, masks, and hats. Bonnie and Clyde II didn’t need them, it was a bloodless coup.

The credit union rep then told me that, given the amount of the financial carnage, I needed to file a police report, which she said I could do at any local PD in the county. 

Walking into the Walnut Creek PD was like walking into a tomb: not a soul in sight, either in the long corridor to the public lobby or in the cavernous lobby itself. Two female employees sat chatting in a glassed-in cube in the reception area. When I told them I was there to report a theft, the woman closest to the hole in the window where you could talk told me that I needed to speak with a detective, all of whom were currently “out in the field.” She assured me that she would call one to meet with me before turning to resume her chat with the other woman in the booth. I thanked her and sat down on one of the visitor’s benches, the sole occupant. 

Midway into my nearly one-hour wait in the tomb-like lobby, a detective miraculously exited one of the locked doors, headed for an adjacent door. I jumped up to intercept him. 

Me: Thanks for meeting with me, I’m here to report a theft.

Cop #1: Sorry, I’m not the one you’re waiting for.

Me: But you’re a detective, right?

Cop: Yes, but I am doing something else right now (turns and walks away). (It must be said at this point that employees at both PDs mentioned in this story were to a person cloyingly sweet and accommodating and Stepford-like, kind of like broadcast news anchors, even in a situation like this one where a local resident (me) was clearly pissed off at cooling her heels for close to an hour in her empty, cavernous, local police station.) 

A detective finally walked out of another door and approached me. Tricked out in full regalia of uniform and complicated communication equipment involving both mouth and ears, he smiled engagingly before dropping the bad news. 

Detective #1: Glancing quickly at the carefully annotated list of fraudulent charges listed on my online credit union statement, Detective #1 told me he was SO sorry (everybody is so sweetly and serially sorry about SNAFUs these days, especially while delivering bad news), but most of these debits occurred in San Ramon so you need to go to San Ramon PD. 

Me: Can’t you please just take the report here and send it to San Ramon PD?

Detective #1): Sorry, can’t do it.

Me: But my credit union rep told me I could submit a report at any PD.

Detective #1: They don’t understand how things work in law enforcement.

Frustrated with my position yet acutely aware of my utter powerlessness and lack of recourse, I walked out of the WCPD, got back in my VW Beetle, and joined the hordes of speeding cars and trucks heading south on I-680.

Shortly after taking one of four San Ramon exits I easily found the San Ramon PD, which was undergoing a major renovation. (There must be lots of cash for law enforcement around here, either that or a bloated fear of crime intense enough to open resident wallets in this sleepy burb.) After zigzagging between temporary plywood walkways I passed several doors marked Do Not Enter en route to the PD’s double doors to face yet another lobby. Once again, a cheerful cop told me that a detective in the field would have to be called in to take my fraud report. So far more of the same, but at this point the similarity between the two PDs ended.

Within minutes a young detective (after you hit 70 everybody looks young) came to greet me and we actually sat down in a conference room. Taking careful notes in his tiny, left-handed script, he spent an hour with me, carefully retracing the trajectory of what was known so far about the theft. (I mentally chided myself for my moment of concern over his youth – a lesson for all of us oldsters.) Though he almost certainly drew the short straw for this assignment, he listened carefully and took copious notes.

Me: Thanks for spending this time with me. My local PD in Walnut Creek told me I had to come here to file a fraud report since most of the thefts happened here in San Ramon.

Detective #2 (hesitating for just a moment, undoubtedly evaluating the wisdom of contradicting a fellow detective, especially a much older one with presumably much more seniority): Well, that isn’t really true. You can file a report anywhere. 

He then went on to describe the steps he would take to widen the net around this particular thieving couple, whom he noted appeared sophisticated in the approach to their thievery: four different Walmarts at $900 and change each (expensive computers or TV systems to sell on eBay, perhaps?), several ATMs including one at my very own credit union. How he, she, or they learned my PIN is a critical question with no good answer since I’ve never written it down. 

The detective told me that some cyber thieves angle to look over your shoulder while you’re inputting your PIN at a store or restaurant. We’ll probably never know. The cop gave me his card and encouraged me to call with questions, even called me with a follow-up question of his own the next day. So we wait…

This tale cries out for an apples-to-apples comparison with another NorCal city (rather than a county sheriff’s department), so I called Ukiah PD. “Nine times out of 10, unless there is suspect information we just document those cases,” said Ukiah dispatcher and records manager Tracey Porter, who told me she was working on her 30th year on the job. “It’s super difficult [to identify thieves] without it.” I found her candor refreshing after all the hopeful East Bay talk about somehow apprehending the perps. Porter added that this type of theft “happens a lot, almost every day” in Ukiah. The process of reporting a theft in Ukiah is essentially the same as in San Ramon. An officer writes the initial report and gives it to a detective, who may or may not refer it to the DA. The sometimes unsavory politics of what advances to the DA or subsequently rises to the level of indictment is beyond the scope of this tale. 

Without actually coming right out and saying that the likelihood of collaring Bonnie and Clyde II is essentially nil (despite the odds, some do get caught), Porter said that consumers should protect themselves as best they can to head off thefts like mine. When checking out with a credit card, she cautioned, you should block a view of the card reader (and your card) with your body so that thieving eagle eyes in the vicinity can’t read it. 

Second to “I’m sorry,” “You have to protect yourself” is the second most frequent advice offering today from customer service in twenty-first century America. We’re supposed to lock our doors, encrypt our documents, insure everything, and essentially be vigilant and on guard 24/7, a near impossibility in today’s virtual reality where you’re only likely to see the Bonnie or Clyde who robbed you in a grainy black-and-white photo taken by a camera mounted in an ATM. 

Curious thing, this artificial empathy, uttered by cheerful strangers you’ll never see again, in institutions that don’t care a fig about you: the illusion of human connection and concern. The real loss here is not monetary, though that is significant—and given the regularity that our impoverished fellow travelers suffer crime in their communities, often of the violent type, this impersonal, bloodless theft ranks on a par with the proverbial tempest in a teapot. 

But our individual realities are still our realities. Until last week I was sensibly cautious but never looked over my shoulder, anywhere in the world: not at a “Yankee Go Home” protest in Izmir, Turkey; not at Peoples’ Park demonstrations back in the day; not during air raids in Israel; nowhere. Modern Bonnie and Clydes like the ones who ripped me off operate nearly anonymously in cyber space; there’s really no one to blame other than grainy security cam photos unlikely to end in either the perps’ identities or apprehension. Cops very well understand but can never say that thieving cyber ghosts, absent finger prints, DNA, or other physical evidence, are rarely if ever caught. 

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