Sunday, December 11, 2005

Browsing for Trouble

It’s not uncommon to pass by new car dealerships on Sunday afternoon and see folks pulled up to their closed gates and walking though the herds of vehicles. It’s nice to be able to walk through the autos and not be hassled by salesmen. What I didn’t know when we chose to do that this past Sunday, we were setting ourselves up for a loss of income and identify theft, as are a lot of unsuspecting Houston citizens every Sunday if they choose to stop at any of the car dealerships along I-45 north of the Beltway and south of Alameda Genoa.

We stopped at David McDavid Nissan on Sunday afternoon (Nov 6) about 2 p.m. to take a look at the trucks. It was a sunny day with some clouds and a little rain just to the south of us, and we pulled just off the northbound service road, parking in the closed southernmost entrance to the dealer’s car lot. The first batch of trucks we looked at were just to the right of our car, on the passenger’s side, not more than twenty or thirty feet away. It took us three to five minutes to look at those trucks and decide we saw nothing of interest. So, we moved toward the other side of the dealership to look at a couple of trucks parked near the showcase. We were up there maybe two or three minutes, taking about another minute to get back to our car. We were gone five minutes, tops, if that.

When we got there, we found a gentleman and his teenage daughter in a black pickup next to ours. As we approached, he was saying something about a guy “over there” who had gotten broken into. As I got closer to the car, I could see glass from the front, passenger side window on the ground, and it was my car he was talking about! My wife was right behind me and she almost leaped over at the window to look inside the car, becoming visibly upset as she realized someone had stolen her purse. She had set it down on the floor in the front of the seat and left it in the car when she had gotten out.

The gentleman from the pickup was talking to his son on the phone and getting the telephone number for the Houston Police Department. He also was telling me about another gent about sixty or seventy yards to the south whose pickup had also been broken into. While we had parked our vehicle perpendicular to the street inside a little driveway, he had pulled up parallel to the direction of traffic and had been up on the curb. The thief or thieves had broken the driver’s side window, found his wife’s purse pushed up under the passenger seat, and stolen it as well.

Neither of us had heard or seen anything. While we didn’t have a car alarm on our vehicle, they had; but it hadn’t helped them at all. The natural traffic noise from the nearby freeway, even on a Sunday afternoon, was enough to not only cover the sound of glass breaking but also their car alarm as well.

The gentleman in the black pickup let me use his cell phone to call the Houston Police. We waited for a policeman to arrive; it was about 40 minutes later when an officer got there. He told us this was the 6th of these called in today, and it was something thatg occurred every Sunday. The department considered these robberies unsolvable; and the policeman shared that his own wife had been victimized by one of these crimes. He had recovered her purse and nearly everything in it except for her cash by searching garbage dumpsters in a nearby apartment complex; and though he recommended we do the same, I mentally filed that idea away as something we were not going to do. We had no idea whom we were dealing with. Searching through dumpsters if you’re a uniformed policemen with a Glock strapped to your hip might be a good Sunday afternoon activity; but I wasn’t a uniformed policeman and wasn’t armed. My idea of a good gun is the 20mm, 6000 round per minute, Vulcan canon found in the F-14; and I just didn’t have one of those. Besides, I was not going to risk me and my wife getting into a confrontation with some dirty bad guys. Better to let the stuff go.

I pulled out as much of the loose glass out of the broken window as I could, told my wife to sit in the rear seat on the driver’s side to minimize her exposure to fragmented glass, and then lowered the rest of the windows in the Montero. In my car, lowering all the windows seems to minimize the actual “wind” in the car; the most wind is experienced when either or both front two windows are down. I drove home no faster than 40 mph at any time and used sidestreets and backroads where traffic flows were normally slower. I parked the Monetro in our garage to protect it until I could get the window fixed; and we began to quickly access our bank and credit card accounts to either close them our or shuffle monies to a place where the thieves could probably not reach it. The police officer had said they were after cash; but we had much bigger concerns.

My wife, like most women, had her entire life represented in the contents of that purse. While it contained only a little cash (about $40-$45), it also held most of her credit cards, her debit card, her driver’s license, a professional license, a NASA spouse I.D., a 20GB iPod and a new iPod Nano (both engraved), her cell phone, a pager from her employer, and various other items I’m sure we haven’t tallied, yet. As we detailed the purse’s contents, the officer pointed out how putting all her stuff in one place (her purse) left her vulnerable to huge losses if the purse was taken. We talked about that, too, and how it was better for both of us not to have i.d.’s and credit cards and/or money in the same place. I typically don’t carry them all together.

In any case, my discussion with the policeman pointed to the fact that this crime occurs every Sunday along this strip of highway. The crooks know that women get tired of carrying their purses and leave them in their cars as they walk, usually with a friend or spouse, around the car lots. The crooks know that car lot security cameras do not cover the streets, and the noise of passing cars will cover what they are doing. They hit fast and leave, ripping off the purses, and taking the cash. Unfortunately, it is not public knowledge that this is happening every Sunday and that everyone who stops at a car dealership along this stretch of highway is at significant risk. I am not sure how long this has been a problem but it has been going on long enough so that the police are aware of it, and I did not get the impression that it was considered enough of a problem they were going to divert resources to put an end to it. Interestingly, the officer stated that only at the Toyota dealership where there was a guard was this not happening.

This happened to us between 2:00 and 2:20 p.m. in the afternoon on a nice day with plenty of traffic. We certainly won’t be stopping to look at cars in this area on a Sunday afternoon ever again, or anytime the dealerships are closed. (I’m sure the dealerships prefer you come by when they’re open anyway, so there’s no financial incentive for them to post guards or cameras to solve this problem.) Obviously, I recommend that everyone avoid this area and don’t assume this is a safe activity. It’s not only unsafe, but it’s very expensive.