Bad Business

Because almost everyone has a computer these days, and because almost every computer breaks sooner or later, my customers tend to be a microcosm of Austin society. I see people of every age, every race, every profession, and every income level. I also see people of every ethical disposition, including, just often enough to be considered anomalous, people who clearly have criminal intent.

About three years ago Yolanda–her real name–brought me a computer that, she claimed, she had forgotten the password to.  This is actually a common issue, and normally not a cause for concern. But it can also be a red flag, for obvious reasons. So because of this I almost always politely ask the person to explain the circumstances by which they came to have this problem. And the vast majority of the time the customer tells a story that is believable enough to allay my concerns. So I go ahead and reset the password for them, usually on the spot, and charge a nominal fee.

There was something off about Yolanda, though, just enough to make me a little wary. To begin with, she effected an exaggerated faux-friendliness that I found off-putting. And beneath the phony smile I detected a feral, calculating quality. She also didn’t seem like the sort of person who would make routine use of an expensive laptop. She gave me, as they say, a bad vibe. So I quizzed Yolanda rather more closely than is typical before deciding it was OK.

Even though the password-reset process only takes a few minutes, if I am not completely convinced the situation is legitimate, I will tell the customer that they need to leave the computer with me for a while, on the theory that anyone who had stolen a computer would probably not consent to this. It is a screening mechanism, but also gives me the chance to check the computer out. When I proposed this to Yolanda she rather apologetically said that that she really needed the machine fixed right away so that she could send out some important emails. “I don’t mind waiting,” she said, giving me her best pleading look. I said, OK, took the computer into the back room and, out of her sight, and examined it thoroughly. I could find no clear indicator the laptop might be stolen, so after twenty minutes or so I gave it back to her and charged her the usual fee. She thanked me and left.

A few days after that Yolanda brought me another computer. Same story. Again, I told her she needed to leave it with me. This time, she said, the computer was going to be a birthday gift, and the party was just about to happen so could I please please please reset the password quickly so that she could deliver the gift on time. After a deliberate pause intended to let her know I was uneasy with the request, I consented. Again, I went into the back room and scoured the computer for any clues that it might be stolen. Finding nothing concrete, I handed it back to her, charged the usual fee, and told her that in the future she would need to leave overnight any computer needing service. At this announcement her demeanor visibly hardened, and she said something like “I don’t see why you gotta be like that cuz it only takes you a minute.” Her tone of voice was suddenly confrontational, faintly hostile.

The next time Yolanda came by, maybe a month later, she brought reinforcements. Normally when people come into my shop they sort of hang near the entrance until they are acknowledged, politely waiting to be invited into the space. It’s human nature. But Yolanda and her crew just sort of barged in and took over. She didn’t identify the cast of characters, but I guessed one to be her husband, another to be her son, and the other to be the son’s friend. The husband projected no particular presence, other than that he was definitely not the one in charge. The friend came across as a more or less a normal late-teenager, but probably not the type who was going to make the dean’s list any time soon. But the son, twentyish, whom she addressed as “Yoon-yor,” looked like something Central Casting might have sent over if you had asked for a young ethnic goon. Junior was a stocky five-foot-six or so, with a shaved head and multiple fearsome-looking tattoos, including the teardrop facial tatts favored by latino criminal gangs. His expression, fixed permanently somewhere between a snarl and a sneer, clearly said “Me tough guy.” He strode restlessly back and forth clenching and unclenching his fists, not speaking a word but at one point making, I kid you not, some kind of growling noise. He stared intently at me in a way that, in other circumstances, would almost certainly have started something. But I met his gaze coolly and without visible emotion. The whole show, clearly intended to intimidate, was actually rather laughable, like the worst acting you’ve ever seen. Again, Yolanda told me the same story. Same song, new verse. This time I firmly told her I was busy and that she would need to leave the computer with me if she wanted me to work on it. After a pause, she said “That’s OK; we’ll come back later,” with Junior echoing after a beat, “yeah, later.” But they did not return.

There is a type of person who is not very bright but does not realize it. Furthermore, this type of person is convinced, in spite of all contrary evidence, that they are actually pretty damned smart, but that nearly everyone else is stupid. Yolanda is that kind of person. She called a number of times over the next few months, each time with a different issue, each time working me from a slightly different angle, each time wanting me to drop whatever I was doing and fix her problem. My response was always the same: You’ll have to leave it with me. And each time she made excuses and declined. After a few rounds of this, I grew impatient. She was not getting the point so I began being rather short with her. But short wasn’t getting the job done either so I escalated to downright rude. Almost anyone else would have gotten the hint and left me alone, but Yolanda didn’t even seem to notice.

One day, Yolanda just showed up unannounced. This surprised me a little because the last time we had spoken I was not very nice to her. She was back to her old tricks. A friend of hers had sold her a computer a few days ago, she claimed. They had forgotten the password and just wanted to get rid of it. Apparently this forgetfulness thing was catching. At the time, there were four other people in my waiting room, so I could credibly claim to be busy. This time Yolanda reluctantly consented to leave the computer for a while. “I’ll come back in a little bit,” she said. I responded that I would call her when it was ready.

As soon as everyone left I fired up the computer, an expensive newer-model MacIntosh. Right away, Yolanda’s story began to unravel. First of all the logon screen featured a screenshot of the owner, a college-age girl named Maddy, which didn’t jibe with Yolanda’s “friend” story. I broke the password and logged in. The desktop picture was of Maddy and her very well-to-do family, posing in the backyard of their very nice home. It seemed extremely unlikely that Yolanda would have anything to do with this group. Further, there was loads of personal information–photos, schoolwork, important current documents–all in plain view on the desktop. There was absolutely no effing way whatsoever that any rightful owner would have parted with this laptop in that state. I spied a document named “Resume,” last edited a few days previously, and opened it. “Maddy” turned out to be Madeleine, a UT sophomore looking for summer work. I called the number in the resume. A young woman answered. I said, “Hello, this is Scott with Computer Medic and I have a MacIntosh notebook . . .”  and that’s about as far as I got before she interrupted me. “Oh my god oh my god oh my god,” she shouted over and over, almost breathless with excitement. After Madeleine calmed down she explained that her computer had been stolen from her car, parked in her driveway, a few days previously. They had smashed the window to get it. Yolanda was busted. I arranged for Madeleine to come by to pick it up the computer, and in the meantime made a police report.

I called the non-emergency number, and after being passed around a bit, ended up with a Detective Sheffield in the Property Crimes division. I told him who I was, what I had, who it belonged to, and how I had come to have it. He told me to hang on to it, and that they would be over soon to take a statement and retrieve the laptop. He explained that they would need to document the item, and after doing so would return it to the rightful owner. We agreed to meet at noon at my shop the following day.

During our conversation, Detective Sheffield  revealed that he was very familiar with Yolanda. In fact, he knew her whole family, which he described as “an ongoing criminal enterprise.” He also confirmed my guess about the identities of the people who had shown up with her that time. In closing I said something like, Yolanda’s going to be pissed when I tell her. He suggested I lie and say that the laptop was stolen in a break-in. Although I know he was trying to be helpful and minimize my exposure, I decided pretty quickly that this was not going to be my course of action. First of all, it seemed a bad idea to try to con a con. Second, Yolanda might think that I was trying to rip her off, which could invite retribution. Third, I wanted her to know I had busted her because I detest, with a deep and burning passion, thieves, scammers, and lowlife parasites. I wanted to punish her for involving me in her criminal schemes. And I was not the slightest bit afraid of her, her no-account husband, or her idiot wannabe son.

During this time, Yolanda had been calling every half hour or so, wanting to know when the laptop was going to be done. I took the first call but ignored the next several. Her voice mail messages became agitated, then angry. This was going to get ugly.

Detective Sheffield showed up right on time the following day. He struck me as a decent and likeable fellow, but with the weary and faintly resigned air you might expect of man accustomed to fighting an endless, unwinnable battle. We talked for probably thirty minutes, first about the case, and then about this and that. In the course of our conversation, Sheffield mentioned that he had interviewed Yolanda on an unrelated matter just days before, shaking his head as he spoke, as if to say “what a piece of work.” As he took my statement, Yolanda called yet again, but left no message. I mentioned this to him, and said I thought she was probably starting to get nervous. “Yeah, I’ll bet,” he replied. We completed our business and Sheffield went on his way, laptop and statement in hand. Five minutes later, Yolanda called yet again, but this time I answered. Showtime.

In a very impatient and demanding tone of voice she asked when she could come by to get the laptop. I told her point-blank that the laptop turned out to have been stolen and that she would not be getting it back. “Detective Sheffield, whom I believe you know, just finished taking my statement.” Abandoning her original story, she said no, no, it couldn’t be stolen because she had just bought it at a flea market on Sunday. I retorted: “That’s interesting, because it was stolen the following Thursday. What’s your next story?” Yolanda was just smart enough to realize she needed to maintain a pretense of innocence, but not skilled enough to disguise her true feelings. Beneath a very thin veneer of pretend civility, I could hear genuine hatred in her voice. After hanging up, I thought: This is going to come back to haunt me.

To my disappointment, I received not a word of thanks from Madeleine or her family. Not that I expected hosannas or anything, but a simple acknowledgment would have been nice. I had, after all, gone well beyond the call of duty, at some personal risk.

I did receive a thank you from Yolanda, though, in the form of a break-in a few weeks later. I cannot prove it, but there is little doubt that she was responsible. Late one Sunday night, they levered the front door open with a pry tool, a difficult task that must have taken two or three strong men several minutes. They were in and out very quickly. They took a stack of laptops, including a couple belonging to customers, my invoicing computer with all the business records, and my beautiful, expensive Apple monitor. They would no doubt have taken much more if the alarm hadn’t sounded, scaring them off. It was still blaring loudly, ignored by neighbors less than fifty feet away, when I arrived ten minutes later. The police arrived twenty-five minutes after that, as I was cleaning up.

It worked out alright, though, in the end. Insurance paid for everything, reimbursing me for way more than I asked. I even got a much heavier door and frame out of the deal. It would take about half a pound of C4 to breach this door. A regular customer of mine, on hearing what had happened, was nice enough to donate and install a complete surveillance system. And Yolanda ended up facing a Possession of Stolen Property charge. So maybe there is such a thing as Karma after all.