Five years ago, Janna was tutoring one of our ASL students at a Starbucks in New York City’s Greenwich Village.  Starbucks is a great place to meet and learn because they’re everywhere and nicely appointed.  Starbucks, we quickly discovered, is also dangerous.

When Janna finished her tutoring session, she reached beneath her chair to grab her bag.  Her bag was gone.  Stolen.  She’d been sitting at the table at Starbucks for an hour and someone must have crawled on the floor to surreptitiously remove her bag from between her feet.  She lost everything.  All her money disappeared.  Her ID and credits cards vanished.  Her iPhone 3GS was no longer hers.  All her American Sign Language support materials were gone.  She felt violated.  She reported the theft to the Starbucks manager who took no interest in her plight and shrugged.

When she returned home, I called the NYPD police precinct for that particular Starbucks to report the theft, and a young officer was incredibly kind and helpful.  He told me there were real “pros” out there roaming all the local Starbucks looking to rip off people who were not paying attention.  He told me her bag was gone forever, probably dumped in a trash bin immediately after the cash was taken.  The officer said these aren’t ID thieves or technology grifters.  They’re only interested in one thing:  Cash.

I thanked the officer and spent the rest of the day canceling all her credit cards and other forms of identification.  To this day, Janna cannot believe how smooth that thief was to steal her bag right out from under her in a Starbucks packed with students and with her private tutoring student sitting right across the table from her.

Imagine my dismay when I read this headline for a recent New York Times article, As the Careless Order a Latte, Thieves Grab Something to Go:

Where in the city can such a thief visit dozens of happy hunting spots on an afternoon’s walk, finding rooms crowded with people staring at laptops or iPads, or texting or talking on phones, and ignoring their purses? A place so comfortable and familiar, with its jazz, leather chairs and Wi-Fi, that customers, otherwise savvy to the city’s dangers, do not think twice about saving a round blond-wood table with a bag or a laptop while they stand in line?

You may be there now, with a grande caffè mocha.

Starbucks shops are ubiquitous in New York, a respite for tourists and professionals young and old, and while the city’s criminal trends come and go and ebb and flow, there remains a steady march of handbags from those shops in someone else’s hands.

Has nothing changed in five years?

Can’t Starbucks in some way better help the police police these thefts of their customers?

Is there nothing more the NYPD can do to help protect Starbucks patrons?

Sure, we’re responsible for our own possessions — but when you’re dealing with professional grifters — you stand little chance of winning against them in a public place unless you spend all your time worrying about getting ripped off and clinging to your wallet and belongings; and while that’s no way to live, that is just what the grifters count on not happening to help them smooth the way to grabbing your cash.

One small solace is that particular Starbucks in which Janna lost all her stuff is now closed.  Did it get shut down due to bad PR, or a lousy reputation with the NYPD, or did the rotten economy finally take it down just as the grifters had taken down their customers?  Somehow, I think only the grifters really know.

8 Comments

  1. David,

    Apparently a lot of people will sit at an adjacent table, reach behind them without looking back (after ‘casing’ a table) and take a purse in a most sneaky manner — no crawling necessary. There are now products that attach to a purse or handbag and wrap around a chair or other secure object and prevent it from being stolen.

    The most common theft at Starbucks, as the article attests, sadly happens when people leave their handbag or even laptop unattended and just go to the restroom or wait in line for a drink. I think it’s the responsibility of the individual to be aware of the possibility of theft and take appropriate action as in not leaving the bag unattended or putting it in accessible places like the ground — Starbucks floors are notorious for being super germy so it’s probably better to keep your valuables on your lap or the table! 🙂

    1. The police offer also said these grifters often work in pairs. One distracts or blocks while the other one steals. It’s impossible to defend if you aren’t expecting a multiple angle attack.

      Why are the floors at Starbucks germy?

      1. David,

        I think all restaurants have germy floors but Starbucks more so — most of their traffic is people coming in and out day in and day out and the floors get cleaned once in that whole time. Other restaurants that have more sit down and stay traffic are a bit less germy.

    1. I don’t think they really care, Joleene. The NYPD went to Starbucks and asked them to put up a sign saying “Watch Your Stuff” or something like that and they were refused — the unspoken lesson being that such a warning would be bad for business. I don’t think the NYPD took that step lightly — so that is quite clear evidence to me that Starbucks has a really big problem with their customers getting robbed.

      I think one way to solve the problem would be to limit the time spent at Starbucks or to charge an hourly fee for hogging a table. As it stands now, people plop down early in the morning with their laptops and buy one coffee and sit there all day long and “work” out of the coffeeshop as their office. That “lounge policy” helps the grifters who can stake out the site for free all day long without raising suspicion and pick the low-hanging fruit with indemnity.