"Madame, bear in mind That princes govern all things--save the wind." -Victor Hugo, The Infanta's Rose

Friday, January 09, 2009

Shattered illusions

One of the reasons we moved to this small town from the Big City was because we were sick of crime. Our apartment in Houston was broken into twice, and the second time the mofo's got thousands of dollars worth of electronics and recording equipment, including my cherished vintage Gibson Les Paul sunburst guitar. It was irreplaceable, and I literally cried for weeks after it was stolen.

But for nearly the last twenty years now, we've lived in a community where everyone respects their neighbor's property, where you can go out during the day leaving your doors and windows unlocked, secure in the knowledge that no low-life scumbag is going to enter your home and take your shit.

Or so we thought, until yesterday.

I frequently nap during the day; with no fixed work schedule since I've been disabled, my sleeping/waking hours tend to get totally out of whack at times, and I often stay up until 4 or 5 AM, grabbing a few zz's during the afternoon to compensate before Mrs. Toast comes home about 5 PM. So I was deep in dreamland about 2 or 3-ish yesterday afternoon when I was jarred only semi-awake by the ring of the front doorbell. Since I was expecting a UPS delivery, I assumed they would just leave the package on the front porch like they usually did, and drifted back to sleep.

When I got up about an hour later and walked into the living room, I was quite surprised to notice that one of our front windows was wide open without the usual screen in place, and all three cats were missing. Since we never let them go outdoors, this freaked me out and my first priority was to find them and get them back inside. Fortunately, they had not wandered far and I was able to gather them up fairly quickly. The next thing was to try and figure out how the window got open. That's when I noticed my wallet (which had been on the kitchen table) was gone, along with my mp3 player and a couple of other small items.

I wish I could describe the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach when I realized that someone, apparently thinking that the unanswered doorbell indicated that no one was home, had entered my house while I was sleeping, grabbed a few items, perhaps even looked in on me in the bedroom to realize there was someone there after all, then quickly got the hell out. This probably explains why more stuff was not taken, including this very laptop I am now typing on (which, sitting in plain sight, would have been a major catastrophe), as well as our stereo system and new TV. Indeed, the police officer who took the burglary report said I should consider myself lucky, as if I had happened to come out and confront the perp(s) in the act, I could have gotten hurt, or worse. As it was, I only lost a modest amount of cash and will have the hassle of having to cancel all my credit cards, get new drivers license and medical insurance cards, etc. Things could have been much worse.

But the purpose of this post is not so much to bitch and moan, but rather to attempt to make lemonade out of lemons. So lest you think it couldn't happen to you, as I did, let me pass on a few tips (learned the hard way!) that may save you some grief later on down the line:

1. Make photocopies of every credit card or whatever else you carry in your wallet or purse, or digital pictures of them, or at the very least write down the card numbers along with the customer service contacts for each. First of all, if something happens, you will know exactly what was lost. Also, the police will want to include in their report the full 16-digit numbers of any cards that were taken, and most statements these days (whether online or paper) include only the last four digits of your card numbers for security. I found it can take a crowbar to pry your own full credit card number from customer service. With Discover, it wasn't until a 2nd-level supervisor had me put the police officer on the phone that she would divulge the numbers. Keep these paper copies in a safe place, and keep them updated regularly as your cards expire and are replaced.

2. Inventory your home electronics and other valuables. Take a picture (and record the make, model and serial number) of every TV set, radio, stereo, portable mp3 player, camera, and everything else you own. Again, knowing exactly what you have can be invaluable if any of it is lost. If you have homeowners insurance, most companies will not process a claim without detailed information about the item, including serial numbers.

3. Password-protect your computer, both with a Windows logon password, and also individually encrypt any particularly private data you may have on your hard drive. It may seem like a hassle to enter your password every time you start up, but you will be glad you did if your laptop should fall into the wrong hands. If you want to go the extra mile, consider using tracking software that silently "phones home" via the internet to a monitoring service if the user doesn't enter a secret keystroke combination within a minute or so after booting up. While this is a bit extreme for most people, it can pinpoint the location of a stolen laptop and might be worthwhile if you travel a lot or have really sensitive data on your machine.

4. Use a master-password program that keeps all your logon information for various websites you use in a protected database. You might want to keep this file on a removable USB thumb drive for added security. This is particularly important if you use internet banking, pay bills online, or use other web-based financial services. Then, you only have to enter one single password (which should be second nature to you so you won't forget it, yet difficult for any stranger to guess, and never, never written down anywhere) to access all of your private information. It goes without saying that you should also have a full, current backup of your computer hard drive. Many people fail to do this because it's a task that's, quite frankly, a pain in the ass. But it's cheap insurance and can save you days or weeks of frustration, not just in the event your computer is lost or stolen, but in case of hardware failure (like a drive crash) as well.

5. Consider some sort of basic intrusion alarm for your home. High-end, monitored systems are not cheap, but the peace of mind can be worth it. Some advanced systems have stealth cameras that record any suspicious activity inside or outside your home. Not everyone needs this level of protection, and good quality unmonitored do-it-yourself alarms with wireless door and window switches and infrared motion sensors can be had for around $200-250. (We're getting one of these soon.) At the very least, consider a motion detector that reacts with the sound of a barking dog. These devices scan through walls and doors and will sound off if someone gets within about 20 feet of them. The police officer told me that these are crude but fairly effective, as thieves are generally spooked by any kind of dog, and won't stick around long enough to determine if the barking is real or fake. Of course, if you already have a real dog, so much the better ... but robo-dogs don't require feeding, walking, or poop-scooping.

Needless to say I am very freaked out by this, on several levels. For one thing, I am angry at myself for my naivety, thinking that this could never happen to me. It happens to everyone, everywhere at some time or another, and not being prepared or at least aware of the danger, is simply foolish. There will be no more leaving windows open or doors unlocked here, which is something I never thought twice about before just laying down for a siesta. Of course I'm also mad as hell at whoever did this, but I'm also getting chills at the thought that some creep was skulking around my living room while I was sleeping just a few feet away. The peace of mind I used to have, that comfortable feeling of being safe and secure in my own home, has been severely battered and may take some time to recover.


  • At 1/10/2009 06:04:00 AM, Blogger SupaCoo said…

    This is a terribly sad story. I'm glad you are ok and were unharmed, and I appreciate your advice. I've always been of the "I'll do it SOMEDAY" notion when it comes to taking a good inventory of cards, electronics, etc, but now I'm substantially more motivated.

  • At 1/10/2009 12:03:00 PM, Blogger Lynne said…

    I'm so sorry this happend to you! And thank you for your reminders/advice.. I need to update mine

  • At 1/10/2009 10:51:00 PM, Blogger goooooood girl said…

    your blog is feel good......

  • At 1/12/2009 11:19:00 PM, Blogger April said…

    What a horrible thing to happen! I'm so glad you're ok though. I got chills just thinking of the fact that you were there sleeping the entire time these jerks were ripping you off, and in the middle of the day!

    We've had break ins in our area of town too. The MO is the perps knock first, wait and break in in the middle of the afternoon. They often stop at the kitchen for a snack. We've been locking our doors, but the houses that were broken into also lock their doors. THanks for posting the tips, I'm not procrastinating anymore.

  • At 1/14/2009 04:24:00 PM, Blogger Chandira said…

    Ugh, sorry!! Bummer.

    Great advice, thank you. I got broken into about 12 years ago, and there's not much worse than that feeling of being violated like that.

    Sounds silly, but get some incense, go round, 'smudge' your place, reclaim it, remark your territory. It really does help you find some emotional closure, and leaves the place feeling nicer again.

    Glad your cats were all ok.


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