Posts Tagged ‘American Express

05
Mar
10

We wuz robbed! — How a trip to the gym led to a workout of an unexpected kind

By Tuesday, Feb. 23, the icy remnants of the storm that brought the Capital of the Free World to its knees began to melt; with that thaw the need to shovel sixteen tons of number nine snow daily in order to avoid a Donner Pass scenario abated.

Time to hit the gym for a workout involving muscles not stretched by snow removal.

AT LARGE has been a member of Gold’s Gym for nearly a decade.  Tho I haven’t yet been mistaken for the chain’s most famous alumnae, Golden State Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger or even Demi Moore, the experience on the plus side has led to several new chums, an 80-plus pound weight loss and a vast reduction in comments comparing my physique to that of Jabba the Hutt. 

To be, ah, fair and balanced, workouts at Gold’s has previously led to a minor assault on my person by a juiced up fellow member, a $100 cash locker robbery as part of a lock-cutting spree by miscreants at Gold’s Ballston sweat factory locker room.

Then on Feb. 23 came the jewel in the crown:  a second locker robbery in which what seems to be an organized gang of thieves: a) Cracked the lock Gold’s sells to protect valuables; b) made off with my credit cards and driver’s license; c) placed a look-alike lock on the locker to delay discovery of the theft; and d) went on a $2,000 shopping spree at Target, Best Buy, Staples and Burger King – how humiliating for a self-anointed food critic! – with the credit cards while I worked out

As I was grappling with the switched lock, FIA Card Service’s alert security folks called me about a several hundred dollar purchase at Target that tripped their fraud filters. (All praises to Steve Jobs: The iPhone doubles as a MP3 player and was attached to my perky gym costume, not in the locker, or more accurately in this case, in the swag bag of the scum bags.) That card was instantly cancelled and, as I recall, an additional authorization was denied.)

In previous incidents, Gold’s staff had, from my vantage point, been done everything in their power to avoid police involvement.  In the cash grab at Ballston, the managers swore a police report would be filed, but that didn’t happen and – after the then-manager evaporated from the scene – staff steadfastly refused to provide telephone numbers, e-mail or last names of responsible company officials, citing (nonexistent according to Gold’s corporate spokesman) ‘company policy.’  In the assault incident, they demanded to handle the matter internally, a euphemism for ‘file and forget it.’

This time ‘handling it internally’ was not an option. The Arlington, VA, police were called with relative good grace.

While waiting for the law to arrive, I busied myself by cancelling other purloined credit cards, alas too late to prevent more charges at Best Buy, Target, Staples and the infamous Burger King purchase. (C’mon, if you have an American Express Gold, wouldn’t you at least take your accomplices/gun molls to Chili’s?)

Great Expectations

Not one, but two very competent, polite, extremely muscular (hey, you don’t want to send a 90-pound weakling to Golds!) officers arrived.  Much to my delight, the officer who ended up handing the case actually seemed interested in catching the crooks, not just filling out a report. (This impression was, unfortunately, also a surprise to the fraud specialist at American Express, who said many police forces ‘won’t even take reports’ on stolen credit cards.)

They dusted the locker for fingerprints – likely a fool’s errand, but in the CSI era, what’s a crime scene without fingerprint dust?

So the officer – I know his name, but since he is one of the good guys and his enthusiasm for solving the case may or may not be shared by the department as a whole and the detectives in the financial crimes unit who may or may not actually follow up – took the report, asked me if I would testify/prosecute, (“I’ll cut off the crook’s right hand in the public square at high noon if you let me,” I replied, perhaps over dramatically) and stated he would pass the report on to the financial crimes unit of his department.

Since I hadn’t yet contacted all the credit card companies potentially involved, the officer asked me to report any additional fraudulent chards I discovered to the detectives in financial crimes unit of his department, the group to who the case, he said, would be assigned.

Crime and punishment?

OK, this wasn’t the Brinks robbery, but, according to the officer who took the report, gym locker robberies are a big business these days, dozens in Northern Virginia every month. And while I was the sole victim for the $50 in cash that was in the wallet, credit card companies – and ultimately everyone who uses plastic – are co-victims on the fraudulent credit card purchases, assuming the merchants followed authorization procedures.

At least in theory, this case has the potential to be solved:

1)      Gold’s has cameras covering the front entrance to the gym and the feeds are retained for some period;

2)      In theory, one can’t enter the gym without scanning a membership card and, again in theory, the data are captured in Gold’s computer system.  God help the member whose credit card has expired or who forgets his card – a photo ID and stool sample are demanded;

3)      Target and Best Buy stores – I don’t know about Staples – at nearby Potomac Yards Shopping Center where the shopping spree took place have extensive CCTV systems that capture, again in theory, all transactions at the registers.

4)      And finally, the Burger King took place in the District of Colombia, which, at least in theory, opens the miscreants to charges of transporting stolen property across state line and interstate wire fraud.

So, images of purchasers – I know this from serving on a jury in a case involving Target a while back – can be linked to credit card transactions, then compared to images of people entering Gold’s and the computer scans of entrants membership cards.  And if TV cop shows are to be believed (OK, I’m a dreamer!) facial recognition programs can often match faces with names.

In the real world, of course nothing is quite that simple.

1)      Gold’s won’t – company policy privacy policy this time – release the front door feed to law enforcement without a subpoena. On one hand, we should be comforted that wives can’t cop feeds of folks entering a public gym with their paramours, but, golly, maybe they should center more on protecting members from thieves.

2)       Gold’s corporate spokesman David Reiseman denies this, but the person on the front desk in South Arlington stated that the system often fails to log in members entering when a staff member is working on the computer. My name didn’t appear on the printout provided to police for the time period of the theft, tho I scanned my card and heard a ‘beep’ acknowledging its acceptance.  But a lot of names were on the list.  Maybe one was the Gold’s Jesse James.

3)      The stores where the stolen cards were used aren’t in Arlington County; three stores were major purchases took place are a mile away in Alexandria City, a fact that an Arlington officer who declined to take to report of additional fraudulent purchase at the crime report line (and declined to give his name) said ‘limited Arlington’s interest.’  Maybe, but county traffic cops will chase you across certainly county and, indeed, state lines if your inspection sticker is expired, provided you remain in their ‘line of sight.’ And on a clear day, you can see Potomac Yards from Arlington.

4)      The Feds? Face it, the culprit isn’t exactly Bernie Madoff, at least I don’t think it is, but I haven’t seen the video feeds…

Lessons learned

As they say on South Park, “We’ve learned a lot here today!”

1)      Gold’s cares very deeply about member’s privacy, but I’ll bet they’d deliver feeds to the cops in a New York minute if someone ripped off a tee shirt from them instead of a cash, credit cards and about 25 hours of billable time from me.

2)      Gold’s corporate warlords in Dallas express a somewhat higher opinion of their computer systems reliability and vastly different view of corporate policy than the ‘corporals with clipboards’ who deal with members on the ground.

3)      Gold’s really shouldn’t be selling Master Lock Company’s Fortress combination locks that dozens of web videos show how to ‘crack’ — open in under three minutes without tools – according to the police officer and confirmed by me with a 12-second Google search. 

4)      Gold’s South Arlington Manager Scott Reed deserves credit for doing something:  Undertaking to remove the dubious Fortress locks from his facility and from Gold’s as a whole.  Will he succeed or be told to put a lid on it because such moves violate our old friend, corporate policy? Only time will tell – and I really fear I’m not helping his career by sharing this.

5)      The jury is still out on the Arlington police.  If the investigating officer’s attitude typifies the department they’ll win a gold star. If the crime report line officer is the norm, maybe we should all go shopping with other people’s credit cards.

6)      Never, ever call Capital One to report a lost or stolen credit card without that lost or stolen credit card in your hand.  While a chat with a chap in Manila or some such clime is always refreshing, Cap One’s phone system is all but impossible to enter without ‘your 16-digit card number,’ and if you’re lucky enough to reach a real person, he/she just doesn’t seem to understand why you’re bothering them.

7)      If you must have a credit card stolen, hope it’s from Citibank or American Express. Replacement is fast and their fraud folks are really good.

8)      If catching folks who steal credit cards and make thousands of dollars in fraudulent purchases is too just much trouble for authorities, especially if local jurisdictional lines are crossed, don’t be surprised when – new card regulations or no – the overall cost of your credit cards rise. Like I said, ‘We’ – emphasis on ‘we’ – ‘wuz robbed!’

9)      At the behest of Mrs. At Large: Don’t carry so many credit cards; she doesn’t have any ideas about what to do with driver’s licenses.

10)   In 21st Century, a scapegoat(s) are a must; someone must be to blame for any bad luck; I am no better than anyone else when it comes to shifting a share of the blame.

11)   I really do funny better than bemused outrage, so the next column will be funnier.

Non-dénouement

As of 10 days after the great locker robbery, my checking account is unlocked, two trips to the DMV have yielded a new driver’s license, new credit cards are in hand and the legal papers are all filled out.

The miscreants, one presumes, are fondly recalling their Burger King lunches and playing with their new x-boxes or whatever.

The Arlington County Commonwealth’s Attorney sent me a slick brochure on dealing with the trauma of victimhood.  In fact, I am a little off my fed since the incident – go ahead and call me a wuss – but that’s not all bad for a once and perhaps future fat boy.

I’ll probably go back to Gold’s for a workout tomorrow, but will use a belly-bag for my steal-ables even if the additional weight slows me down. That is if –presuming the computer system is working – they let me in.  The card used for my monthly membership fee was stolen and cancelled.

I’m girding my loins to follow up with the detective assigned to the case. Since I’ll be poking some Arlington cops on this, I’d better make sure my inspection sticker is current before I go out.

You can’t be too careful on the road – or at the gym – these days.

Bulletins as they occur…

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Jared Cameron


It is better to smoke a single candle that to curse the darkness