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Fast Lane to Your Wallet

Parked cars provide a new and easy route for crooks to steal IDs.

Cathy Cleaver is an avid swimmer who keeps her head above water—at least when it comes to protecting herself from crime.

The 51-year-old nurse knows that health club locker rooms can be a hotbed of thievery. So when she goes to her club in the Philadelphia suburbs for her nightly swim, she takes only her membership card and keys with her—leaving her driver’s license and credit cards locked in her car.

On April 4, after finishing her workout, Cleaver returned to her car and discovered that some of her credit cards were missing from the glove compartment.

When she couldn’t find the cards—at home or back at the health club—she called to cancel them. Cleaver says in the 90 minutes that elapsed from the time she first entered the club until she called to cancel, $6,000 was charged on her Visa and American Express cards for electronics at Best Buy and Circuit City.

One week later, she received a phone call from the Philadelphia police, located 20 miles away. “The detective said they had made a raid and found my credit cards, along with those of other people, in an apartment stacked with electronics,” Cleaver says.

“I told the detective that I had thought I locked my car and there were no signs of a break-in. The detective said, ‘You did lock your car; the thieves have devices to get into cars, steal only a card or two, and they lock it again so you have no idea you have been hit … at least immediately.’ ”

As Cleaver discovered, parked cars provide a new and easy route for crooks to steal IDs. Detective Bob Friel of the Aurora, Colo., Police Department, says that when credit cards were being stolen frequently from health club lockers, exercisers were advised to lock them in their cars. “But the thieves have figured this out,” he says, and thefts have shifted from locker rooms to parking lots.

Friel’s department recently busted a ring accused of breaking into cars parked at gyms, soccer fields, parks and other recreational facilities to steal the credit cards of nearly 500 victims. Twenty people were arrested for making more than $400,000 in purchases on the pilfered plastic.

“These thieves were specifically targeting cars parked at these locations, because they know their victims may not be carrying their wallets when they go hiking or exercising,” Friel says. Often only select cards were stolen—not the entire wallet—in an attempt to fool victims.

“The crooks know they have maybe one or two hours to use the cards before they are canceled,” Friel says. “They literally run out and buy high-end electronics that can be resold or store gift cards that are difficult to track.” Those arrested in Aurora now face organized crime charges, but the parking lot ploy continues elsewhere.

Your protection:

  • Don’t keep valuables in your car.
  • If you do, don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by throwing a jacket or towel over them.
  • When you get new credit cards, write “Ask for ID” instead of your signature on the back.

For more, go to the Federal Trade Commission at and click on “Identity Theft,” then “Consumers.” Or visit the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse at and click on “Identity Theft.”