Emotional Roller Coaster

On July 25th my purse was stolen, and I’ve been locked in a tangle of emotions ever since. The only things that help are all the lessons I’m learning, and sharing my story with everyone I can so maybe it won’t happen to them.

I’ve never considered myself the victim of a crime before. Two years ago, my Rav4 was vandalized—a window smashed in a grab and run. All I lost were a bright pink coin purse holding a few dollars in change, and the hundred dollars and time required to replace the window. I wasn’t happy, but it felt like such a random, spontaneous act that it was easy to move past. And my favorite tooled-leather coin purse remained buried deep in the console, so I didn’t feel any sentimental loss. The only losses were time and money. The lesson learned was never leave anything valuable in plain sight.

The theft of my purse was neither random nor spontaneous. It was a deliberate act perpetrated by a team of professional thieves. It has cost me time and money, peace of mind, and great sentimental loss. Suddenly I understand the experience so many robbery victims relate—that of feeling violated. And I also realize that the process of recovery is much like the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

At noon on the 25th, my husband Barry and I met our friend, Patti, for a music program at Fourth Presbyterian Church on Michigan Avenue, downtown Chicago. It had been an exciting morning. One of my “human angels” had secured me tickets for an upcoming Garth Brooks concert, after I had abandoned all hope. I was filled with joy!

After the program, we walked to a French restaurant on North Wabash and sat at an outside table. A tall, bamboo hedge separated us from the sidewalk, and directly behind me was a concrete wall. There was no place to put my purse, so I set it on the floor between my chair and Barry’s, four feet from the sidewalk. I was aware of one small, narrow opening to the sidewalk, but figured no one could possibly reach my purse through that space. Yet, I kept looking down, checking that my purse was still there.

LESSON ONE: If you’re feeling anxious, pay attention. I should have picked up my purse, even if I had to hold it on my lap.

I discovered the loss at 2:45 PM as we rose to leave. At first I didn’t believe my purse was gone. I kept staring at the spot as if it would suddenly reappear. And I searched all around and under the table, although I knew the purse had remained in one place throughout lunch.

As realization set in, things got frantic. Barry recalled noticing a well-dressed man loitering outside the bamboo hedge looking our way. He set out to try to find him. Patti headed in the opposite direction to check wastebaskets and bushes in case my purse had been tossed somewhere. The restaurant owner pointed out surveillance cameras belonging to Loyola University. I was on the phone with the Chicago police when two Loyola policemen arrived. They took a report, then rushed back to their office to check security films.

Meanwhile, Chicago police told me to start calling my credit card companies, notify them of the stolen cards and ask if there had been recent charges. I mentally went through all the credit and debit cards in my wallet and wrote them down. Then began the frustrating and arduous task of calling information for numbers, navigating automated systems to find real people to talk to, and giving them enough information to locate my accounts.

LESSON TWO: Keep your phone separate from your purse.

LESSON THREE: Put customer service numbers and the last four account numbers of all your credit cards in your phone contacts.

Four of my five cards already had charges on them. Close to six thousand dollars had been racked up in less than an hour in stores including Best Buy, Macy’s, Nordstrom, Nordstrom Rack, and Banana Republic.

LESSON FOUR: Do NOT carry more cards than you need.

Both Patti and Barry showed up empty-handed, but the Loyola Police returned with good news.  Surveillance video captured the thief on his hands and knees, using a hook to grab my purse. He tucked it into a bag, stood up and walked away. It was the same man Barry had noticed standing outside the hedge.

LESSON FIVE: If you notice someone loitering nearby, be aware of whatever belongings they might be checking out. This guy didn’t appear to be a threat, but professional thieves don’t always look like thieves. (Judging by where they shop, the thieves are better dressed than I am!)

After collecting the names and numbers of the Loyola Police we went to the closest Chicago police station to file a report. The officer on duty asked for the description and value of my purse. (A three year old, ratty cloth Baggallini worth no more than $30!) It was when she asked for contents of my purse and wallet, that I began to comprehend my losses. There was the little notebook given to me by a dear friend. I’ve carried it since last October and have no idea of all the information jotted inside over the past nine months. And my case with “Wine Princess” on the outside, filled with business cards.

Inside my wallet were my driver’s license, all my medical and automobile insurance cards, AAA and American Psychological Association membership cards. In addition to approximately $75 in cash were a Starbucks card, a $100 gift card to a local spa, and two $50 American Express gift cards. Folded into a tiny square was a hundred dollar bill I always kept “just in case.” It was tucked into a small silk Chinese pouch and zipped away in the coin compartment.

LESSON SIX: Don’t carry excess cash, and don’t carry gift cards unless you intend to use them that day.

Also tucked into the silk pouch was a pair of earrings my son Jeff gave me when he was five. They were large, brass, gracefully curvy triangles engraved with delicate designs. For many years they were my favorite earrings. Whenever I flew, I wore them to ensure a safe flight, calling them my “lucky earrings.” I wore them until I wore them out. It was then I started carrying them in the Chinese silk pouch. The earrings have no monetary value, but they are irreplaceable. Of all the things I lost when my purse was stolen, the earrings are the only things I grieve.

LESSON SEVEN: Don’t carry anything you can’t bear to lose.

The officer at the police station was kind and sympathetic. She said sometimes purses and wallets turn up because thieves don’t want to be caught with them. “After they take the cards and cash and go through all your stuff, they throw them away.” The idea of strangers going through my “stuff” makes me shudder. I still pray my discarded wallet will show up someday—and that my earrings, somehow overlooked, will return to me.

Over the past two weeks I’ve had to replaced my driver’s license, file an additional police report for the fraudulent use of my credit cards, call every card company with police report numbers and the names of investigating detectives, wait for new cards to arrive, activate the cards, and record the new information. I’ve had to file a fraud report with the three credit bureaus, notify automatic withdrawals of new information, and talk to police and creditor investigators.

LESSON EIGHT: You must file separate police reports for the initial theft and the fraudulent use of your cards.

LESSON NINE: You must talk to the fraud department of all your credit card companies and give them your police report numbers so you won’t be held responsible for the charges.

Throughout it all, people have been kind, compassionate, and eager to help—from the owner of the restaurant, to the Loyola and Chicago police, to the woman at the parking garage who didn’t charge us the mandatory $100 “lost ticket” fee when we told her our story. Patti and Barry who dug through trashcans. My financial fraud Detective who gave me her cell phone number and lets me call her “Barbara.”

LESSON TEN: Look for the helpers. There are always helpers.

I’ve had nightmares, moments of panic, fits of indignation, and waves of intense sadness. I’ve raged and I’ve cried and I’ve told my story over and over again. I am amazed at how many people this has happened to, and how profoundly it impacted them. No matter HOW long ago it happened.

LESSON ELEVEN: If this happens to you, expect to go on an emotional roller coaster ride—and try not to beat yourself up. One of the Loyola Policemen told me, “This is the only time this has happened to you, but this guy has probably done it a thousand times.”

This ordeal is FAR from over and I know I’ll have more lessons to post in the future. Right now, I’m grateful to have the opportunity to share my experience in the hope it will save even one person from having to go through the same thing. Although I’m still sad, acceptance has begun to set in. And with acceptance of loss, comes the possibility of healing. Yesterday, I bought a new purse and have started looking for a new wallet. I no longer have my lucky earrings, but I have pictures and fond memories.

The thief robbed me of a lot of “stuff,” money, time, and peace of mind—and I hope he and his ring are caught—for my sake and the sake of others. But I refuse to give him any more of my emotional energy. He wrecked my afternoon on the 25th, but I will not let him steal any more of my joy!