Chase Bank Burlingame, Google Maps Image

The Bank, the Phone, the Good Samaritan,& the Thief

The story begins at Chase Bank in Burlingame, CA, where I stopped on Saturday morning to deposit a few checks. The bank was almost empty, and within a couple of minutes I was back in my car driving home. I’d only driven a few blocks when I realized I didn’t have my iphone. I’d left it on the small desk in the lobby where I signed my checks. I turned around at the next light and returned to the bank. “I left my phone here,” I said upon entering. To which a fellow customer replied, “Oh? That was yours?”

The customer then explained that she had seen another customer pick up the phone in its bright pink case and rush outside. “You left your phone,” he had said to a man in a black suit. The man in the suit, also a customer, took the phone without a word, got into a white vehicle with a woman, and sped off without even thanking the Good Samaritan.

The eye witness proceeded to describe the couple to the teller while the manager offered to allow me to use his desk phone. I tried calling my stolen cell numerous times, but it had already been turned off; the thieves must have known how easily they could be traced. The manager was as helpful as he could be at the moment under the circumstances. He told me that he would contact the Good Samaritan, who was a regular customer, and follow up with me.

I drove straight home and used my ipad to run FindMyIphone, but by that point, with the phone turned off, the app couldn’t locate it. I set a new pass code and set the alarm to sound if the phone came back online. I also added a message to the thieves: “I understand if you made a mistake. Pls return phone.”

You can see where this is going. The alarm never sounded, the phone was never returned. I filed a police report online later that day. On Saturday afternoon, I called the bank manager, who told me that he knew the couple who had taken the phone. To his credit, he had called them.But they had denied everything. He told me that he couldn’t reveal the identity of the thieves, as it was against bank policy. He assured me that the bank would review the surveillance tape.

On Monday, I went to the bank. Again, it was almost empty.The tellers all appeared to know not only the story, but also the customers involved. The manager wasn’t there, so I left a message. A couple of phone calls and emails later, including one in which I told the manager that I would very much like to talk directly to the people who had my phone, he emailed back to say that he had called the suspects a second time, and they still had denied taking it. Although he did not have permission to tell me the identity of the thieves, he said, he would be willing to work with law enforcement.

Although I trust that the manager was doing his best to help—constrained, as he was, by the rigid set of rules and regulations of a behemoth corporation—I cannot help but question a corporate policy that withholds the identity of a customer who has committed a crime from the customer against whom the crime was committed. If it were a different type of crime, would the bank take a different route? What if the man in the black suit had punched me in the face, or ripped my purse from from my hands? In that case, would they still protect the criminal? The crime happened on the bank’s property, and it seems that they have an obligation to make a good faith attempt to resolve it.But on that Monday when I talked to the tellers, it was clear they had been advised not to talk to me.At least two of them had been there on Saturday morning when the theft occurred, but they clearly did not want to help. “You’ll have to talk to A.,” they kept saying. A. being the manager, who was proving ever more difficult to reach.

There is also the matter of identity theft: always a potential problem when one has a phone stolen. Chase Bank claims to be very concerned about identity theft. Their identity theft packet warns customers that a smartphone may be used to obtain passwords and financial information. My phone, indeed, contains a great deal of personal information. I made two crucial errors, I admit: at the time the phone was stolen, I did not have the pass code lock turned on, despite the fact that my phone has all of my email accounts. And of course, I had carelessly left the phone behind in the first place. My bad. But if the thieves use the stolen phone in commission of yet another and much more serious crime—identity theft—it seems to me that the bank is partially responsible for failing to take definitive action to retrieve the stolen phone. It makes me wonder, naturally, if I should trust the bank with my funds. The answer is rather clear.

On Tuesday, I went to the station in person and talked to an officer, who agreed to follow up. The police must get very bored of stolen iphones. According to the young man at AT&T who set up my new and very expensive phone, the iphone is extremely easy to jailbreak without a trace. He sees customers every day whose iphones have been stolen. My case, of course, is a dime a dozen.Except that in most cases, I imagine, the theft is not captured on bank surveillance cameras.

And that is where we stand. I understand that an iphone is a very small thing in the greater scheme of things, its theft a rather minor (if expensive) annoyance. I understand the bank has other priorities: namely, the acquisition of very large sums of money and ever more customers to shore up its coffers. And yet, banks go to a great deal of effort to get a person’s business. In fact, when I was signing up for my checking account, they were very interested in attending to all of my needs. They pretend to be service-oriented. They claim to have some degree of concern for their customers’ material well-being, not to mention the security of their personal and financial information. This has not, in this instance, proven to be the case.

Here’s the thing: I want those pictures back. Pictures of my son’s first Little League game of the season, his first day of school, his birthday. Videos of him singing. Voice memos in which I captured those sweet and fleeting moments of my child telling stories, reporting on his school day, laughing deliriously. These are far more valuable to me than the phone itself. I asked the bank manger to tell the thieves that I very much wanted my photos and videos. Just today, I asked him to offer them a monetary reward, a not insignificant one, which I will happily pay just to have these personal mementos back. These little records of time. I have not heard back.

I must admit, I am fascinated by the psychology of a person who would steal from another customer at his own bank, a place where he will have to show his face again, a place that he has entrusted, to some degree, with his own financial well-being. Every employee there likely knows, at this point, what he did. Will he act as though it never happened? Will the tellers and the bank manager, out of some strange protocol of civility and silent complicity, never bring it up? Will he close out his accounts and move on to a different bank, where no one knows about his penchant for dishonesty, where they do not look at him and think, “Ah, there goes the thief?” Does the couple have children? If so, how will the children feel when they realize their parents are being questioned by the police about a theft? I would love to know.

Or am I missing the point altogether? Is it possible that this man and his partner feel that they have done nothing wrong, that they stole a phone simply because they could, and that as long as they are not prosecuted, all is well, their reputation be damned? Does the bank perhaps feel the same way? After all, our major corporate banks have not been doing too well in the truth and honesty department in the last few years. They have not exactly won the public’s trust.

But then, one mustn’t forget the matter of the Good Samaritan. Without him, the crime would not have been committed. And yet, I appreciate what he did. As much as I dislike the people who stole the phone, I am happy to be reminded that there are so many people like Marvin, whose first thought was to spare strangers the trouble of a lost phone. I would like to think that the Good Samaritans outnumber the bad eggs. I have always, in fact, believed this. I will continue to believe it. And yet I also believe that there are more tellers than Good Samaritans: the tellers being the ones who stand back and stay out of the fray, determined not to get involved, insisting that someone else is in charge.

I probably can’t get my phone back. But I can write a story about a couple and a bank—a moment when two people reveal their true selves, and a major corporation shows just how little it is willing to do to protect its customers. And a Good Samaritan who, without thinking, commits an admirable act of kindness, no matter how that act was ultimately distorted by two corrupt and selfish individuals.

The nice thing about being a writer is that any minor misfortune can be channeled into a story. If I were to write this as a fictional story, with all of the necessary embellishments, it would be a story about a couple who lost their way, a couple who, having committed a crime of opportunity on their way home from church in their well-pressed clothes and their pristine white SUV, must re-evaluate their visions of themselves. They have always considered themselves to be decent people. They believe in their own finer qualities. But given the opportunity to commit a petty theft, they do so. Given the opportunity to rectify it, they refuse to. Their ruin comes not from being prosecuted—they never are—but rather from the paranoia that sets in as they begin to believe that everyone around them knows that they are no better than common criminals. It begins at the bank, but then someone who works at the bank goes to their church, and someone who goes to their church has children at their school, and, of course, their business associates find out as well. Slowly, their marriage unravels, as each blames the other for their series of unfortunate events. That is the novelistic version, wherein justice works its tentacles through their lives in such an insidious way that, for them, there is no escape. They must live for all their days with the beating of the tell-tale heart. It ends, I suppose, in divorce, loss of status, with some good old-fashioned paranoia thrown in for good measure.A quiet calamity that leads them to be less than they could have been, and leads their children to hooliganism. Yes, that sounds about right.But that, of course, is fiction.

Basically, I suppose, the real story of the bank, the phone, the good Samaritan, and the thief, the story as it has happened up to this moment, only confirms what I already suspected: some people are good, some people are bad, a great many are indifferent, and corporations like Chase Bank are little more than machines, acting blindly according to a rigid set of rules, with no concern for the customers who make their existence possible.

Michelle Richmond is the New York Times bestselling author of The Year of Fog, No One You Know, Dream of the Blue Room, and The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress. Her new novel is forthcoming from Bantam.Follow her on twitter @michellerichmon