All Right, so You’ve Been Burglarized: A Tutorial

As you might already know, Bryan and I had our home invaded on Wednesday, July 27th.  The thieves left with about $5,000 worth of our property, including some of our our beloved instruments, professional music gear and digital cameras.  Our story has a mostly happy ending though, in part due to luck, an attentive detective and our own vigilance.  We learned a lot throughout the process that I thought I’d share so that if the same happens to you, you’ll be more prepared than we were.  Everything I’m about to write is my opinion, and obviously I have no insider information about how police departments and pawnshops operate—I’m only reporting on how they were perceived by me.

Day 0:  You are reading this post right now and you haven’t been burglarized yet. 

THERE’S STILL HOPE.

Stop reading right now.  Stop reading and don’t start again until you have renters or homeowners insurance.  We didn’t have renters insurance when we were robbed, and it is just a stupid, lazy thing not to buy.  We pay $130 a YEAR for $20,000 in coverage from State Farm and $160 a YEAR for $15,000 in instrument insurance that covers our gear in our home, on the road or anywhere.  Also, every single time you buy something worth stealing, like cameras, instruments, music gear, phones, computers, write down and store the serial number somewhere safe.  Even if you find your camcorder on Craigslist and you know it’s yours, it’s impossible to prove it without a serial number.  We didn’t write down our numbers, but lucked out with a lot of the music gear because Elderly Instruments, our beloved music retailer, keeps impeccable records and told us what our serials were.

Day 1:  You just came home for lunch and…oh fuck, you’ve been robbed.

Step 1, don’t freak out yet.  You should freak out, but wait for a few hours.  Step 2, call the police right away and when you get through to dispatch make sure you request them to send an officer who is certified and able to lift fingerprints and in the mean time don’t touch anything.  I didn’t realize that there are actually police officers who aren’t able to take fingerprints from a crime scene, but there are and I can’t describe how frustrating and utterly useless a dispatch officer is if they can’t even collect potentially valuable evidence.  Step 2.2, if you have anything that might incriminate you—I’m looking at you folks in the states of Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, DC, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington—uhh, make sure you move it before the cop-olas get there, just sayin’.  Step C, you probably noticed right away that something was missing, or damaged or moved in your house, try to stay calm and do a thorough walk-through.  Write down an inventory of anything that is missing or damaged, and any other potentially helpful information including serial numbers, value* and any identifying characteristics.  The more information you can get before the dispatch officer gets there, the better shape you’ll be in.  The truth of the matter is that the police, in general, don’t take home invasions very seriously—I found this especially true for young college students.  I think that they assume my parents are paying for everything and so a burglary isn’t a big hit for me, which couldn’t be less true.   If you can show that the thieves made off with a significant amount of stuff, you’ll increase the odds that the dispatch officer even files anything.  

When the dispatch officer arrives be sure to explain everything slowly and calmly, and ideally have that inventory of things you already know are missing ready to give to them, because they don’t seem to write a lot down.  Our dispatch officer didn’t really write anything down…like, nothing at all.  Again, I think this is typical because they don’t really care, and are, by default, pessimistic about the prospect of solving these types of cases.  Our officer even told us that our case wouldn’t be prioritized and would likely not even be assigned to a detective.  It’s really important that you not get discouraged and remember that the dispatch officer is basically just driving around waiting to be called to a crime scene and once they leave, they’re done thinking about you and they really have no idea what will happen with your case.  So, don’t let your initial police interaction determine whether you get your possessions back.

 *I’m not 100% on what dollar value you should place on your items when you file your police report, but my advice is to report the replacement value.  That is, how much money would you need to get to replace your items, not what you actually paid for them.  Typically the insurance companies use the police report as the basis for your compensation, and if you have, for example a Yamaha Clavinova electric piano that you bought from a friend for $200 but would cost $1,500 new, you’re going to be pretty bummed out when State Farm only gives you $200.  If you don’t have insurance, don’t panic yet.  Some insurance companies will cover your under your parents’ homeowners insurance.  Even though we’re PhD students and have been considered independents for many years, Bryan’s stuff still would have been covered under his parents’ policy.  Even if you think it wouldn’t apply it’s free to ask, so ask!

When the officer leaves, it’s time to set-up what Bryan and I liked to call the “Craigslist Crawl.”  The Craigslist Crawl is just a browser with all the pages for all your regional Craigslists that you can refresh a couple times a day and keep track of.  My strategy was to refresh, click the top 3 and then scan for my keywords.  That way each time you refresh you’ll know when you’re approaching the items you already looked over because you’ll see your block of three purpled-out links.  Another useful resource is the website All of Craigs which is keyword searchable and returns hits from everywhere in the country.  Try not to get addicted to scanning Craigslists in the process.  Also, be sure to check eBay because a lot of pawn shops run online stores through them.  Here’s what I had the pleasure of scrolling through everyday:

Day 2:  All right, now what?

Call the police department or detective line and tell them you want to follow-up with your case, do this every single day.  Expect the phone operator to say something like “…what do you mean ‘follow-up?’”  My response to this question for the first couple of days was “Well, I’m spending hours of my day searching on Craigslist and in pawn shops for my property, and I’d like to know that the police are spending time as well.”  I also once asked “How much needs to have been stolen from me in order for this crime to be taken seriously?”  Phrases that walk the line between being polite and being a total dick will show that you’re serious about making sure the case gets assigned and also lets them know that you’re going to stay on their asses until everything possible has been done, just make sure you stop calling once everything possible has been done.  Also realize that it takes a little while for cases to be assigned.  In Ann Arbor, cases are evaluated and assigned once a week, so it might take a little while before anyone is actually working on your case, but being vigilant is important.

Don’t forget your Craigslist Crawl.

If you live in an apartment building or in a small neighborhood draft up a letter describing everything you know and your contact information and tape it to all your neighbor’s doors.  With a note you won’t have a constantly repeat yourself for what is likely to be little input on their end.  Also, don’t discount traffic or business surveillance.  Get on the horn and find out if that convenience store on the corner has a camera where you might be able to see the burglars drive or walk down your street.  The most important thing that you can take away from this entire post is that besides your time, asking people stuff is completely free and could help you find your property or at least the people who took it.  

Hopefully by now you have an inventory of what’s gone and as much detail as possible about each item.  Now it’s time to get on the beat.  Bring a bunch of copies of your inventory with the case number in the header and all your contact information and start hitting up local pawn shops.  When you go inside don’t tell them why you’re there yet, just look for your stuff as though you’re shopping.  If you find something, go outside and out of view and call the police.  Keep in mind that most pawn shops are facilitators of burglaries and launderers of stolen wares (you can tell I have a really high opinion of them), so don’t trust that they’ll tell you if they’re holding your stuff.  Also, having your stuff for sale on the floor is most likely illegal wherever you are.  Michigan has a mandatory 15-day waiting period before pawnbrokers are allowed to sell new merchandise, so just attempting to sell your things so early is illegal.  If you don’t see your stuff, ask them if they have anything available that isn’t on the floor.  For example, tell them you’re interested in a new bass guitar but that you don’t like what’s out.  If you’re confident that your stuff isn’t there, leave them with a copy of your inventory and ask them to call the police if anyone comes in with those items and tell them that you’ll be back in a couple days even if that isn’t true.  Having the case number in the header should signal to them that you’re serious about finding your property and that there will be consequences for buying your stolen stuff.  Telling them that you’ll drop by again should hopefully scare them into following through with the police.  

If you’re like us and don’t drive, you can do the same thing via phone although it requires a little more trust.  Call up pawn shops and ask if you can email or fax over your inventory.  They mostly pretend to care, at least.

Days 3 - 5 might be very much like day 2.

Day whatever:  You called the detective line and learned that your case has been assigned.  

YAY!  You should be really happy, because now you’ll be working with a detective who probably specializes in burglaries, larceny and such and hopefully knows a lot more than you do.  Step F.3 is to call your detective, introduce yourself and politely request that they tell you everything they know.  You might, or might not, be surprised to find that some or all details of the burglary were omitted from the report the detective received.  In our case, our dispatch officer failed to report the fact that we saw two suspicious people parked at the back of our building and also omitted our description of the vehicle.  It turns out that our burglars had already been apprehended following a series of 9 home invasions, of which our home was the FIRST, but since the dispatch officer didn’t file that information, those robberies hadn’t been linked with ours.  In a perfect world it would not be your job to make sure that the police do theirs, but even in the sleepy town of Ann Arbor the officers are overworked and underpaid and it’s on you to be on them.  Here is where luck entered into our case.  Our burglar was already on probation and was wearing a GPS tether, so it was absolutely trivial to prove that he was at our house exactly when we said he was and also easy to see where he took our stuff (or at least most of it).

If your case hasn’t been assigned, keep asking the police why not.  Do you have literally no idea who it could be?  Is there not one shred of evidence?  If not, keep prowling Craiglist for anything.  Hopefully you’ll only need to find one thing to figure out who the burglar is.  And look for surveillance!  

The best day:  You found your stuff!  Holy shit!

When our detective called me to say that he had good news, I thought I might faint.  He’d found all of our music gear and instruments at a prominent pawn shop in Detroit.  Oh, holy relief!  Sort of.  The law is ambiguous about who owns what in this situation.  The pawn shop bought our stuff and didn’t want to give it back for nothing, and we didn’t want to repay for items that were stolen from us.  Here is what you should do:

DO NOT negotiate with the pawn shops, and definitely do not go into the store without an officer.  The pawnbrokers make their living gouging people out of possessions and then reselling them at a markup.  They’re likely better at negotiating than you are and will posture and pretend the law is on their side.  What you should do is kindly ask your detective to confiscate all your possessions from the shop.  In all likelihood, and with extreme likelihood in our case, the brokers know they’re buying stolen goods and they don’t want any hassle with police so they’ll turn your stuff over without a fuss.  If they can get you in the store to retrieve your stuff on your own however, they’ll likely browbeat you until you give in and buy your stuff back.

The fact that our gear was stolen should have been immediately obvious from the fact that it was sort of a random assortment of stuff, came from people who live about an hour outside of Detroit and still had duct tape labels with my name, phone number and email address on it, but as I mentioned before, pawnbrokers want to get paid and are willing to buy stolen stuff as long as the risk to them is minimal and they have plausible deniability.  Don’t believe their sob stories.

    

I’ve described some strategies for how to get your property back that worked in my case, but likely wouldn’t in other cases.  I hope that the advice will be helpful at least to a few folks, but I would love to hear more stories and experiences from others on this topic, so feel free to comment away!  

I didn’t talk at all about my emotional reaction to being burglarized, but let’s just say it was one of the worst feelings I’ve lived through.  The idea that there is a predator watching you come and go from your home just so that they can rummage through your things and take items you’ve worked hard to buy takes a while to get over.  I thought that my trusting, naive nature was going to be ruined permanently, but I’m finding myself as trusting as ever, just a little more careful and a hell of a lot more insured.

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