Built to Steal

Will someone please card Artie?

Dave "Artie" Austin identity theft
When you look like this, even Artie would card Artie. - WALTER  NOVAK
When you look like this, even Artie would card Artie.
Two years ago, Dave "Artie" Austin was waiting at a Kmart checkout when he noticed a purse on the floor. "It was just filled with someone's Christmas doughball," he says -- $300 to be exact.

The kids were excited. When Dad's an electrician for Local 38, a job where layoffs come in equal proportion to work, the chance appearance of green is cause for jubilance. "If we were dishonest, I could have paid for all our Christmas right there."

But Artie's an adherent to the Ways of the Stand-up, where the holy text decrees you don't take the loot of another -- especially at Christmas. So he and son David took the purse to customer service, where they found a woman in tears. "She was like, 'I don't know how we're gonna have Christmas this year,'" he says. "That woman thanked us like 25 times."

The same year they were driving along a Lakewood street when they noticed money sticking from a paper bag beside the road. It was filled with cash, the words "brown bag lunch" written on the bag. Nothing more. "That was somebody's lunch money," says Artie. They took it to the police station.

"Twice in that year, we found big chunks of doughball," he says. "And we didn't keep it. That ain't right. You kinda want to teach the kids that. That's the whole thing."

But it brought to mind how easy it is to steal. With three kids of his own -- and two more he and wife Annie rescued from foster care -- he grasped the impending devastation if someone were to steal from him.

So he decided to launch a personal jihad against theft. His battle: the ease with which someone can swipe your debit card.

The ancient among us will recall a financial instrument known as the "check." Merchants distrusted them, for they were easily stolen or written without the funds to support their aspirations. So they would ask for 17 forms of ID, the blessing of three bishops, and detailed sketches of your ancestral tree. This, according to scholars of antiquity, "got to sucking something fierce."

So the biblical species known as the "money trader" -- alias "The Banker" -- invented the debit card, providing an immediate, paper-free way to buy stuff. Rejoicing ensued.

But despite the Age of Identity Theft, merchants suddenly believed the miracle plastic required no security at all. A guy named Gunner Stranqvist could use the card of Alexandra Washington, and your friendly neighborhood cashier wouldn't even bother to check.

You might say this bothered Artie. "It's fucking killing me."

He prefers the debit card to its more rapacious cousin, the credit card. "It's your cash. You don't need to pay interest," he says. "I don't have the need to finance a head of lettuce. Just 10 more payments and this salad is mine."

But despite his looks -- with an ever-present bandanna and beaten job-site wardrobe, he looks like a brawny gypsy who's come to fix the toilet; "I'd card me," he laughs -- nobody ever asked for his ID. Not when he went to Longhorn, to Sears, to Penney's. Not when he spent $1,300 at CompUSA, using cards under both his names -- Dave and Artie. Not when he went to fast-food joints, which don't even require a signature. "If you find somebody's wallet, you can eat for free until somebody reports it."

So he began asking cashiers to card him. No one would.

One day at Best Buy, "The cops were everywhere." Someone tried to use a card reported stolen. The machine ratted him out.

Artie reached the counter and paid for his purchases. "He didn't check anything. I said, 'Why didn't you check my ID? How do you know I just didn't find it in the parking lot?' That's my favorite one. He said it's store policy that we don't check IDs. They had a guy there, in cuffs, for using a stolen credit card, and they still won't check my ID?"

The same thing happened at HHGregg. "I said, 'What if I found Dave Austin's wallet in the parking lot, and I came in here and spent $500 of Dave Austin's money?'"

A manager arrived, but seemed to think he was on "hidden camera," says Artie. "He just said some corporate response like, 'Here at HHGregg, the customer is No. 1.'"

So Scene tried to get companies to discuss their policies. It's easier to obtain Syrian state secrets.

Warning: We are about to enter the Land of Customer Service. Those suffering from heart problems or post-shopping stress syndrome should consult a physician before reading further.

At Artie's bank, Fifth Third, we asked Gary about policies on theft. But Gary wasn't permitted to speak on such classified matters. So he sent us to Heather in PR. She never called back.

"That's a good question," responded a manager at Best Buy. She sent us to a phone that rang and rang. No one ever answered.

At HHGregg, a woman in customer service confessed to "having a lot of problems in the store." But she wouldn't provide her name, and company policy is to check only if the card is unsigned. (Memo to thieves: Make sure to sign your stolen cards.)

We found much the same at other stores. None would provide their name, each offered vague policies -- recurring motif: We're Spending as Little Effort as Possible -- and all seemed to consider their customers' financial security an alien concept.

Artie knows why. "Nobody gives a crap."

But last week, he finally found someone who did. He was returning the computer he bought from CompUSA. This time, with the company's money on the line, the cashier made sure to ask for his ID.

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