How Close to Theft?

March 6, 2009


My wife and I bought a used truck. We made some mistakes in how we did so, even though Pandemonic warned us that automobile dealers cannot be trusted. Unfortunately, she didn’t warn us until after we made our purchase.. This is our fault, not hers, as I did not ask her advice in advance of making our rash decision.

Anyway, the dealer did nothing that would warrant hiring a lawyer or contacting a consumer protection agency. I will tell the story in a different post at a different time, if I live that long.

The salesman told us that the used pickup truck had new tires. He indicated that the tires were an unusual brand.

After we fixed most of the things wrong with the truck, I fretted about the tires. Yesterday, I was running errands, so I stopped by the tire dealer we use. (Unlike my experience with the auto dealer, I have used this tire company on a number of occasions and have never had a bad experience. (However, your mileage may vary.)

Recently, I bought a laptop from a computer store. (see next blog post) to replace the laptop my last employer let me take home and use. Laptops are a frequently stolen item, so I worried about my work laptop and I worried about my own laptop. I had my laptop in the truck. I stopped at the tire store.

A serviceman came out while I was parking the truck. “Can I help you?” he asked.

I said, “My wife and I bought this truck and we were unhappy with the purchase.” I added, “This has nothing to do with your store.”

I went on, “They told us they had put new tires on. I have my doubts about everything they did. However, probably the tires are fine, but I would like you to check them over for me. I expect you will say they are fine, and I expect that I will not buy anything from you today. But I have been very happy with your work and your products in the past, and I expect to be happy to purchase products from you when I need to in the future.”

He told me that he would be glad to examine the tires.

Although I do not distrust the tire dealer or their employees, I decided not to leave the laptop in the truck. I carried the laptop (in its case) into the tire dealer’s waiting area. I laid the laptop case on a table where they leave newspapers for customers to read.

I had not had lunch, so I had a bag of their free popcorn and a drink of their free coffee. Several people were waiting. One woman restrained two lively medium-sized dogs on leashes and kept soothing the excited dogs. I am more of a cat person than a dog person, but I get along with dogs well enough. I asked her, “Is it OK to pet your dogs? I ask because I don’t want to upset them if they are excitable.” She told me they liked being petted, and they seemed happy enough when I let them sniff me and then stroked them.

A television was showing President Obama’s meeting with his health care taskforce. He cracked a couple of good jokes and displayed good stage presence. There were several people, all in my age cohort-50s and 60s, in the waiting area.

A man in his 50s, very respectable looking entered the waiting area. He looked at my laptop case. Then he picked it up, carried it over to an empty seat, and put it on the floor next to the seat as he sat down.

For a few seconds, I stared in disbelief. Then I said, “Excuse me, that is my laptop.”

“Oh,” he replied perfectly smoothly. “I thought it was my wife’s laptop.”

I said, “No, it’s mine.” He picked it, walked over and put it on the table. He said a few more words about how much it looked like his wife’s laptop. I thanked him, and went back to eating my popcorn and drinking my coffee.

Was he telling the truth or was the respectable-looking middle-aged man trying to steal my laptop in plain sight of God and man and everybody?

After a while, the tire technician came into the waiting area. He told me he had parked my truck in the parking lot and handed me the key. He said, “The tires seem to be fine. However, I have never heard of this brand of tire.”

I said, “I expected that the tires would be fine. I am not surprised that you never heard of this brand of tire. Although you are probably familiar with every brand of tire on earth, the dealer I bought the truck from probably found a way to bring in tires from Mars. Although I am not going to buy tires from you today, I am pretty sure I will need to buy tires from you sooner rather than later, and this will be where I buy them. Thank you also for the popcorn and the coffee.”
I picked up my laptop (which had not been claimed by the man’s wife) and walked out to the truck. I started the truck headed out to the gym.

Next: How close to tragedy?


9 Responses to “How Close to Theft?”

  1. RR Says:

    Hmmm. A puzzler. If the man visited the shop with the purpose of helping his wife to retrace her steps since misplacing her laptop, one would think he would first check in with the service manager and explain his problem. One also expects that he would check with the people standing around, to make sure the laptop he thought was hers didn’t in fact belong to one of them. Thirdly, your stereotypical laptop thief would grab and run.

    But you report that he sat down in the waiting room after taking the laptop from the table. It’s hard to imagine that his wife, a recent patron of this same store, had left her laptop on the magazine table, and that he just happened to spot it when visiting on his own. Does this couple maintain a fleet of cars large enough to warrant regular visits to a tire center?

    One more revealing fact from your narrative: as I read it, when you challenged him he simply acquiesced and returned the item to the table. He didn’t remonstrate in the slightest, and didn’t suggest that the two of you open the case together and establish ownership. If I truly believed I had recovered my wife’s valuable laptop, I wouldn’t just give it up because some stranger says it’s his.

    This respectable-looking man is sounding more and more like an opportunistic thief. I doubt that he visited a tire center with the expectation of grabbing untended laptops, but when the opportunity presented itself, he gave it a whirl.

    Strange, to say the least. YMMV.

  2. WOW.

    I believe you had a near-miss with “white-collar theft.” And what a great disguise … an ordinary respectable-looking guy. *contemplating new career*

  3. Karen O Says:

    I tend to want to give people the benefit of the doubt about things, so I think there’s still a possibility he just made a mistake.

    But then again…

  4. modestypress Says:

    Thank you to all for your comments. I call myself a “radical agnostic” which in part means “skeptic.” I just don’t have enough evidence to come to a solid conclusion.

    RR. your analysis fits pretty well with my thought process at the time, laid out with a little more detail.

    A large proportion of computer thefts and password thefts and “break-ins” really come under the category known as “social engineering,” which means: if you are brazen enough you will often get away with all sorts of crimes.

    Years ago, I wrote four computer books, of no particular distinction; the last two editions were published by Henry Holt. One day I called my editor, whose office was on the 12th floor of a Manhattan office building. She said she couldn’t work with me; somebody had stolen a computer out of their office, during office hours. How do you walk off with a computer from a publisher’s office on the twelth floor?

    When I worked at a computer school in Portland, OR, someone came in during the break between day classes and night classes and walked out with a computer from a classroom.

    The school then cabled down all the computers and printers. A few days later, the theif, pretending to be a repairman, walked in and in front of the lab manager tried to walk off with a large laser printer. When the cable stopped him, he asked the lab manager to unlock it for him so he could take it away for repair.

    When the police searched his house, they found it full of computers and printers he had stolen. Our stolen computer was there. When we got it back, we found that he had installed a sound board (that he had stolen somewhere else).

    There was no way to discover the source of the stolen sound board, so we kept it. As far as I know, this is the only case of upgrading by having one’s equipment stolen in history.

    But I don’t know. The guy in the tire store may have been innocent. I chose not to make a scene.

    Perhaps I should get the “Lojack” for laptops. Lojack in cars dials a security firm if your car is stolen. The laptop version erases your hard disk and then dials the web and says, “Here I am. Come get me.”

    When our daughter was about four years old my wife and I played hide and seek with her. She would hide and after two minutes or so as we pretended not to be able to find her, a little voice would call out, “Here I am! Here I am.” Smart kid.

  5. modestypress Says:

    Italics out of control as usual.

  6. kmcdade Says:

    Totally a thief. And what really bothers me is that “social engineering” is an acceptable practice for many people, who think it’s not really stealing.

  7. modestypress Says:


    Your point is valid. I once checked out a couple of books on euphemisms from the library. Humans reproduce by having sexual intercourse. I can say that phrase in polite adult conversation in an appropriate context without anyone getting upset. On the other hand if I use the “f-bomb” quite a few people would be perturbed. It’s the same activity.

    If someone steals my laptop he is a thief. Martha Stewart (who had lots of money anyway, so she didn’t need to use “inside information” to make money on the stock market. She did go to jail for a bit, but she is quite welcome in polite society; people don’t follow her to cocktail parties saying, “Thief! Thief!”

    For that matter, our country, which we consider a noble example of human rights, was built to a large extent on the labor of black slaves we stole from their homelands in Africa and on stealing land from the aboriginal peoples here we mislabeled as “Indians.” However, most Americans have their feelings hurt when people from poor countries sometimes go “thieves! thieves!” about Americans.

  8. pandemonic Says:

    Dear RN… Some automobile dealers can be trusted but not many. In our entire metropolitan area, I would trust ONE, and that’s because we know him. He used to be our neighbor.

    Buying a used car is often an iffy proposition. I’m lucky in that my father was a major greasehead. He taught me what to look out for. These are handy skills for women, because for some odd reason, men think we are too stupid to know about the machinations of an automobile.

    If you want, I can impart my wisdom to RG, when she’s of the car-buying age, of course.

  9. litlove Says:

    I think the guy was after your laptop. A couple of years ago I watched from upstairs as an unknown man calmly walked in the back door of my house. I ran downstairs to find him in my kitchen. He claimed he was lost trying to deliver a parcel and I redirected him. For a while I thought he was just thoughtless and then people started telling me I’d narrowly avoided being burgled. It was a bit of a shock – your story strongly reminded me of that. I’m really glad you had the presence of mind to hang onto your laptop, and happened to be there at the right time.

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