This year, I had a beer in one of the more budget-conscious bars in the Mission district. My wallet stayed a little later than I did.
I didn’t notice that until 11 a.m. the next day, when I got a call from my bank. Hey, a helpful man in card fraud detection asked, in the last 12 hours had I been to McDonald’s twice, taken four rides with Uber, purchased a disposable phone at MetroPCS, and visited Walgreens and Target?
What followed was sadly familiar to many of us: I spent the day canceling credit cards, ordering new health insurance identification, replacing my driver’s license, and trying to remember what else, besides cash, was in my wallet.
A week later, relatively whole again in plastic, I received from my bank a list of all of the charges (which the bank covered). They provided a rough guide to the evening.
Looking at the numbers, I began to wonder: How many times, during that disappointingly banal crime spree, was my thief photographed, tagged, measured or otherwise observed in our semi-constant world of databases? And with a modest effort, how hard would it then be for the police to find him?
The answer to the first question is, probably several dozen times. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that all this monitoring is helpful to someone like me.
Some companies are reluctant to talk about how much they are filming you, or how long they keep the images. Others simply have a hard time knowing.
For example, about 90 percent of the 13,000 or so McDonald’s restaurants in the United States are owned by independent owner-operators, so the company can’t really say if those people have cameras. “We assume the majority do,” said Terri Hickey, a company spokeswoman. “We strongly recommend their installation and use.”
What about a McDonald’s in San Francisco? “Almost certainly there’s cameras, inside and out,” said Grace Gatpandan, an officer with the city’s Police Department. “If it’s a drive-through, they’re going to have a camera.” Some of those cameras are to record people who try to drive off without paying, or to catch employee theft.
A Walgreens at 23rd and Mission streets, another stop that night, is well equipped with cameras, too. “At least two in the pharmacy, the entranceway, probably over the shopping aisles,” said Phil Caruso, a Walgreens spokesman. “We like those, and some of the ones on the exterior, to be visible, and we put a sign in the front so people know they’re being filmed.”
Like many other big stores, Walgreens often has other, smaller cameras about door height, to catch faces in case the police want close-ups of people.
Target was not willing to talk about what my thief bought with my card, or its use of video, but it may be the most extensive watcher of all. Just the checkout area of its store at Fourth and Mission streets in San Francisco, the most likely location my thief visited, has at least 18 cameras, from four manufacturers.
The thief spent almost $200 at Target, enough to afford nine of the 13 home video surveillance cameras Target sells there. That would have involved walking past another 50 highly visible surveillance domes.
The advent of cheap home cameras, and the theft of packages delivered from the likes of Amazon, have led to an explosion of video in San Francisco. Police officers investigating a serious crime have been trained to look for nearby cameras, and every one of the city’s 10 police districts has a specialized video surveillance officer.
Once you become aware of their ubiquity, looking for cameras can be chilling fun. I counted 15 on the block going away from Target. That may be a bit high — five of them were trained on the entrance to a medical marijuana store. Of course, everyone with a smartphone is also packing video capability.
The San Francisco Police Department likes this video deluge, according to a department spokesman, Carlos Manfredi, because things like credit card fraud are often linked to other crimes. “We’ll circulate pictures of people to all the stations around town, to see if other officers know the person from other crimes,” he said.
They also go up on private channels on YouTube and Vimeo, he said.
Last year, a murder that involved a suitcase full of severed body parts was solved when the police found surveillance video that showed a man dragging the suitcase around.
My case was at the other end of the crime spectrum, but even the style of the crime provides clues about the thief. This man or woman started small, with the McDonald’s and Walgreens purchases, and apparently made the big purchase at Target once there was confidence the card was going through. The thief also stuck to one card.
“He was trying to stay under the radar a bit,” said Joe Sullivan, head of safety and security at Uber. Normally a thief with a stolen card will hire Uber’s luxurious black limos, “to go big,” he said. “Your guy took UberPool,” the company’s cheaper ride-sharing service.
Is it weird to feel a little shame here? What, my card isn’t good enough for the high-end service?
Sullivan, a former federal prosecutor in Las Vegas who has also worked at eBay and Facebook, said criminals called these small purchases “bust-out charges.” “You go little at first, make sure the card works,” he explained. “Then you go big.” My bank appears to have stepped in right after the first substantial purchase.
That isn’t to say that my thief was a master criminal. I don’t have an Uber account, and he (Sullivan’s term, though Uber’s privacy rules prevented the company from telling me anything more) put the card on an existing account.
Uber also has GPS data on every ride, time stamps on rides, and the names of drivers. The drivers are allowed cameras of their own in cars, but Uber doesn’t know how many use them.
“If the police are interested in your case, we have a lot we can share with them,” Sullivan said.
Big “if.” After two visits and three calls to the Mission district station, and three calls and two emails with San Francisco Police Department public affairs (a route not open to most civilians), the police assigned someone to my case. That was well over a month after the theft. Walgreens gave them some video, which has been circulated, but Target had already junked its footage.
Uber, which over its four rides obtained route information and the person’s address, was not contacted.