By Svanes from Flcikr. At Ritual.


It only took a minute. Garrett McAuliffe, an intern at two Bay Area publications, was among the hundreds of people sitting in a Mission District cafe on a Friday, working away on his laptop. He stepped out to 24th Street to make a call, and that’s when it happened.

“Two guys just took your computer,” another customer rushed out to tell him. McAuliffe chased two men, but lost them. Back at the Sugarlump Coffee Lounge, the power cord dangled from the wall and his wallet sat on the table. His black Inspiron laptop was gone.

“I just didn’t think I needed to be vigilant in any way,” said McAuliffe.

At Sugarlump, a laptop is left unattended.
At Sugarlump, a laptop is left unattended.

Wrong, said Capt. Stephen Tacchini of the Mission District SFPD precinct. Tacchini says that over a two-week period, there have been “about half a dozen” laptop thefts here and in the Castro, Market and Noe Valley.

“They just came along and snatched them,” he said. “That was not happening before. I don’t know what inspired that to happen or what, but it certainly made us take notice.”

Tacchini said police do not believe an organized group was behind the incidents.

In response, plainclothes officers have conducted sting operations. A number of arrests have been made, but in some the district attorney’s office declined to press charges.

In two cases, the defendants were charged with one count each of attempting to receive stolen property and attempted grand theft.

Erica Derryck, spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office, said the D.A. supports the crackdown.

“We have been working with the robbery teams to give them information on the types of evidence required for us to move forward,” she said.

Tacchini said, “Now we’re refining the manner in which we’re doing this sting.”

The plainclothes operation will be ongoing, he said, at least for the next few weeks.

In the Mission, it’s easy to find rows of laptop users anywhere there’s wireless and caffeine. Opinions on coffeeshop laptop etiquette vary greatly.

“I’m a very trusting person, and this is a very trustworthy place—I mean, the whole city—but things can happen anywhere,” said April Rinne, 35, at Ritual on Valencia Street.

Jesse Alberts, the barista there, said he didn’t know of any problems with theft during the year and a half he has worked at Ritual. Asked whether people leave laptops unattended, he said, “You see people take their laptops to the bathroom with them.”

At another table, Will Craven was immersed in a work project. When he needs to get up, he said, “I usually ask a neighbor to just mind it.”

Craven reflected, “To be honest, I probably don’t worry about it enough.”

At Javalencia further south, Matthew Sebonia said walking away from a laptop is a risk. The recognition of that risk, he added, depends on “how recently you’ve gotten something stolen.”

McAuliffe said he, for one, has learned his lesson. And if the police are unlikely to find his laptop, he is cautiously optimistic that LoJack will. The latter is a program that for an annual fee of $30 to $70 offers tracking or data deletion in case of theft.

Two and a half weeks after the incident, Lojack told him that that his laptop had made a post-theft call. Now comes the recovery process, involving the police, a subpoena to the Internet service provider where the call originated from, and eventually a warrant. The average recovery time, the email said, is 45 days.

There are several similar programs, including Undercover 3, MacPhoneHome and zTrace.

Back at Sugarlump on Wednesday afternoon, life went on.

A man stood outside, talking on his phone. Inside, his laptop, at an empty table, was in plain view.

First published Feb. 13, 2009

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  1. I’m not a fan of police resources going to this since it is basically the stupidity of the laptop owners. If they were being taken by force, it would be a different matter. Consider the cost of a new laptop an idiot tax. Police should be pursuing real property crimes.

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