So this is the story of how I helped arrest two credit card fraudsters.
In my early 20’s, I worked with an entrepreneur who ran a gift delivery start-up business. We had a catalog with a selection of 20 nice-quality “New York-y” gifts which we left in hotel rooms, and had a pre-wrapped selection of all 20 in our office. The idea was that business travelers without time to shop for souvenirs could peruse our catalog and place an order, and we’d bring it to their hotel’s front desk, all wrapped and ready to go, so it’d be waiting when they checked out the next morning. The desk clerk would have them sign for their purchase upon checkout and send us the signed receipt after.
Cool idea, but one that was slow to take off. We were always a little financially tenuous, and a lot of my days at work it was just me and my boss, Bill, sitting there looking at each other for eight hours.
So when I took a call for an order from a guy who wanted three pricey watches, Bill and I were both very excited. “We can absolutely do that for you, sir,” I said, grinning as I took the call. “They’ll be waiting at the desk when you check out.”
“Actually, can you bring them to us right away?” the guy asked. “We’re with a record label and about to go to a business meeting, and wanted to have gifts for the clients. We’ll be in the lobby waiting for you and you can bring them right to us.”
Bill was listening on the other line and nodded hugely. “Absolutely,” I said. “I’ll bring them over myself!” We practically did a Snoopy dance when I hung up – a sale of three watches would triple our takings so far that month – it would cover a months’ rent on the office and then some. He stuffed the watches into one of our shopping bags as I typed up our sales slip, stapled it to the bag when he handed it to me, and scurried to the hotel, only ten blocks away.
Two guys waved me over when I got to the hotel – one a big burly African-American guy with very dark skin, dressed all in black, and a white guy with a beard and hair down to his chest, in a vaguely 80’s suit. They looked “music executive” enough to me, for sure, and I handed over the bag with a grin, gushing thanks again. They thanked me, and we all walked out and went our separate ways when we got to the sidewalk. I didn’t realize until later when Bill asked me – after we’d celebrated again upon my return – that I’d forgotten to get their signature on the receipt. Bill chided me a second, but then let it go – “never mind, that’s usually the desk clerk’s job,” he said. He was in too good a mood.
The guys called back the next day. “Thanks for the watches! The client loved them.”
“Oh, you’re very welcome, sir!” I chirped, signalling to Bill that this was them again. “Can I help you with anything today?”
“You can, yes,” he said, and I gave Bill a big thumbs’ up. “We’re having an even bigger meeting today, so can we have….seven more watches?”
“Seven watches?” I repeated, more for Bill’s benefit than mine. “Absolutely.”
“And you have these necklaces….can you throw in two? We’re gonna cheat and get presents for our girlfriends on the corporate card.”
I laughed along with him. “Absolutely sir,” I said, holding up the two necklaces to show Bill.
“And can you meet us in the lobby again? Will it be the same person as last time?”
“Yes, it’ll be me again. I’ll see you shortly.” I’d been typing the order up as we talked, and Bill had been packing with a grin – two bags this time. He handed them to me as I hung up, and I printed out the receipt and set out again. Saw the same two guys in the lobby again, and walked the bags over. This time, I remembered – “I’m sorry, gentlemen; I forgot to get this from you last time and I got in a little trouble, so could I just get you to sign the receipt here?”
They frowned. “Oh, our signature’s on file with the front desk. We don’t need to.”
“Uh…er, I see, but we’re not actually affiliated with the hotel, so – ”
“It doesn’t matter,” the white guy said. “We left a copy of our signature with the front desk and that automatically covers anything we order here.”
“….Does it?” I asked, uncertainly. I’d never heard of this, but I also wasn’t used to staying in four-star hotels.
“A lot of places do it that way,” the black guy insisted. Then sneered a bit; “I’m actually surprised you’ve never heard of it.”
“Yeah, just tell your boss to check the hotel file.”
I reluctantly gave in; it sounded fishy, but they were persuasively confident, and I was only 24. I thanked them again, and walked back to the office, still a bit uneasy.
Surprisingly, Bill also looked uneasy when I walked in. Before I could tell him about the signature-on-file thing, he asked, “Did you run into any trouble on the way there?”
“Did you stop anywhere along the way or did you go straight there?”
– Oh, great, I thought, – first the customers are on my back and now Bill is. “No, I went straight there. Why?”
“They called about fifteen minutes after you left,” Bill said, frowning. “They sounded kind of nervous and asked why you hadn’t gotten there yet and if you were on your way.”
“Well, it was a ten-block walk, Bill…”
“Yeah, that’s true. …They still seemed awfully nervous. How about the receipt?” I told him what they’d told me about the signature being on file, realizing as I told him just how ridiculous it sounded. We looked at each other. “…Something sounds really wrong about this, doesn’t it?” Bill asked me. “Tell you what – what card did they use? I’ll call their fraud office and see whether we’re just being paranoid.”
I hovered by his desk as he called them, correcting one or two points in our report. The card company said that our account “strongly suggested” a case of fraud, and suggested we call the hotel’s security office to see if the guys could be kept there. “We’ll put someone on that now,” Bill said, gesturing to me to call them.
Hotel security put me on hold while they checked on the room. Bill was off the phone by the time they came back, giving us the bad news that their room was empty. “But we can call the police and we can all wait for them,” they said. “Can someone from your office come by?” Bill nodded, hearing them on speakerphone, and started getting his jacket. It was nearly five, but I told Bill I’d wait at the office as long as need be.
Bill called from the hotel about fifteen minutes later. “Hi, Kim – so, remind me, you saw the guys, right?”
“That’s what I thought – the police think you should come up here too, because that makes you an eyewitness.”
I swallowed very hard. “Oh. …But…the office…”
“Don’t worry about that,” Bill said, chuckling a bit. “Just come on by.” I swallowed hard again, got my purse and made the scary walk to the hotel.
Bill met me in the lobby and brought me to a back room where three plainclothes cops were manning a couple desk phones. They showed me their badges when they introduced themselves, but were all dressed in casual-tourist mode; the sergeant even had on a Hawaiian shirt. For the next hour I sat there with them; one was on the phone to the credit card company, trying to track down the card’s legitimate owner (“we want to confirm that this wasn’t just their Aunt Ethyl letting them use her card on purpose”), the other was alternately checking in with the station house and with hotel security, waiting for the guys to come back. The third took my statement, getting a more detailed description of the guys from me. Bill was in and out of the room every few minutes, first hovering around the desk where I sat and listening to my statement (and giving one of his own, at his insistence) and then flitting back to talk to the front desk and hotel security in person.
We did get through to the cardholder – who confirmed that she had not authorized anyone to use her card – but waited in vain for the crooks. “Well, what we can do,” said the sergeant, “is try to catch them early tomorrow morning – tomorrow’s Saturday, so maybe they’ll sleep a little later and if we come to their room early enough we can get them. So – Miss, what’s your address?”
“We’ll need you when we do that,” the sergeant explained. “You saw them, so we’ll need you when we make our arrest to confirm the identification.” He saw me going pale. “Don’t worry – you would be under police escort the whole time. That’s why we need your address – we’ll send a squad car down to your apartment and pick you up, and we’ll even drop you off back at home after. You’ll be perfectly safe.”
We set up a time for my pickup the next day; Bill made one last check with hotel security and then came back to join me, and we all walked out of the hotel together. The cops turned back towards their station, and Bill and I turned south, back towards our office. My head was swimming with the rush of activity during the past hour, and the thought that I was not only have to get up early on a Saturday, but that I was going to have a police escort for something. It was surreal. Bill saw my unease and tried cracking a couple jokes as we walked, to take my mind off things; I was starting to smile and laugh with him on the next block.
And then I saw the crooks pass us on the sidewalk.
They were smiling and joking to themselves as well. I froze my face in the grin I was wearing from Bill’s last joke, and willed myself not to panic when the white guy looked right at me and a flash of recognition crossed his face for a second. I made myself nod politely – nice day we’re having, stranger – and willed myself to stay calm.
Bill had also gone quiet. But then when we got about twenty feet away he grabbed my elbow hard. “That was them, wasn’t it.” He’d heard my eyewitness description too many times.
He pushed me at a payphone to our right. “Call the cops and get them back,” he hissed. “I’ll follow them back to the hotel and make sure they don’t leave.” And he turned and speedwalked back up the street behind me.
We had only just parted ways with the cops three minutes before, so they hadn’t even returned to the station yet. I spent a panicked five minutes screaming into the payphone – “Sergeant HENDERSON! I need to speak to Sergeant HENDERSON! He already knows what this is about! Send him back to the hotel! RADIO HIM or use the WALKIE-TALKIES or something!” I screeched. By the time they calmed me down, Sergeant Henderson and company had returned – and whoever I was speaking to was no doubt grateful to put him on the phone with me. “YES! Sergeant Henderson! THEY’RE AT THE HOTEL! We passed them on the street and Bill’s followed them and – ”
“Where are you now? Stay there,” he interrupted. “I’ll pick you up.”
I hung up and stood on the sidewalk, quivering with nerves, jumping every time I saw a squad car. I nearly missed Sergeant Henderson when he pulled up a minute later in a yellow cab and waved at me – it wasn’t until he held up a big placard with the NYPD insignia on it that I realized it was him.
Bill was by the hotel elevators when we got there, and bounded over like a puppy. “I’ve been watching the elevators!” he crowed. “I saw them get on one and go up but they haven’t come down! They’re definitely up there!”
“…Thank you for that,” Sergeant Henderson said, bemused. Bill was grinning like a little boy playing the best cops-and-robbers game ever. I, meanwhile, was totally petrified – Sergeant Henderson told me that we were going to try arresting them now, which meant they’d need me on hand to “point the finger” at them. Which meant I would be in the same room with the guys I was saying needed to be arrested. Eek.
Three more cops showed up, with the head of hotel security in tow. “Okay, this is it,” Sergeant Henderson said, looking around at us all; me last. “Ready?” he asked. I nodded, swallowing hard. The cops fell into step on either side of me, and brought me onto the elevator – and Bill jumped on along with us. We all stared at him. “Uh, Bill, how about this,” Sergeant Henderson said. “How about you stay down here in the lobby and keep watching the elevators? We need you to make sure they don’t get past us.”
“Oh! Good idea!” Bill chirped. He leapt out and took up a position in the dead center of the elevator bank, immediately taking up scanning each approaching elevator car. He flashed us a big grin and a thumbs-up as our door closed. The cops all chuckled to themselves at him as we rode up; “a little excited, ya think?” one quipped.
The head of hotel security had their room number – it was down at the extreme end of the hall. But he held us at the elevator when we got off. “Lemme call their room and make sure they’re still in there,” he said, picking up the lobby phone. After what sounded like only two rings, he spoke in a hideous English accent – “I’ve got the wrong number, chaps, so terribly sorry.” He hung up, nodding. “Yep, they’re there.”
I was too busy marveling at the fakeness of his accent to notice the cops all gathering themselves to move, but when they started down the hall, I followed obediently, close enough at their heels to overhear one cop reminding the others to “don’t forget they may have guns.”
“I’ll stay behind until you need me then, shall I?” I said, stopping right were I stood. I could come into the room, I could look them in the eye and point them out, but guns? Nope.
The cops had all stopped too. “Oh, sorry, yeah, you should probably stay out here.” They guided me to one side of the hall, standing in the doorway to a different room. “Don’t worry – we’ll go in first and make sure the room’s safe. When everything’s safe, we’ll let you know we’re ready; then you just come in and I.D. them. Okay?”
“Don’t worry,” the head of security said. “You’re a good 20 feet from their room here.” But he saw my worried face and glanced across the hall; it was room number 7. “Actually, let’s have you wait in front of this door,” he said, guiding me to that doorway with a wink. “It’s a lucky number.” And after one last smile, he joined the cops on the long walk down to the room. I watched them cluster around the doorknob; watched the head of security unlock the door; watched them bang the door open and storm in. “Hi, we need to talk to you guys, got a sec?” one cop said as he disappeared into the room and the door clicked shut behind him.
I was only waiting about two minutes, but it was an interminable two minutes. I’d forgotten the guys had been affable enough before; this was different, now I knew they were crooks. They were crooks that I was going to help arrest. Crooks that I was going to be in the same room with and who would be standing there listening when I pointed at them and said that they were crooks. Crooks who might have guns in the room where I was about to point at them and say they were crooks…
I suspect that the two square feet of carpet in front of room 7 on the 15th floor of that particular hotel has since been ever so slightly thinner than the rest of the hallway, due to my pacing.
Finally one of the cops poked his head out into the hallway. “C’mon in,” he called, waving me down. I did, walking fast – I was terrified, but just wanted to get it over with. I barely looked at the room – I just got a sense of unmade beds, two cops rifling through bureaus, and two other cops holding the crooks to one side, holding them with hands behind their backs. The crooks looked at me uneasily when I came in. “So, these guys took merchandise from you on two occasions, right?” One of the cops asked me.
“Which one did you specifically give the merchandise to each time?”
“Uh…” I wasn’t expecting that. “Well…I don’t really remember the first time, but that guy” – I pointed a trembling hand – “that guy took it today. But they were both there both times,” I added.
“Yes.” I nodded. “They were both there both times, and this guy is the one I definitely handed the bag to today.”
“Great. Thank you very much, you can go down to the lobby and wait for us a minute.”
“…okay.” I hesitated a split second – wasn’t someone going to escort me? – then walked back to the elevator in a daze.
Bill pounced when he saw me get off the elevator. “Did you get ’em?” I nodded. “YES!” he crowed. “Oh, this is great! Are they still up there? What was it like, were they in handcuffs? And you pointed them out?” I nodded again. “Oh gosh, they’re going to walk them out through the lobby! In cuffs! To embarrass them!”
A few moments later, that’s exactly what they did. One of the elevators dinged open and the cops walked out in a knot, two of them guiding the two handcuffed crooks out through the lobby and to the front door, past the other visitors; all of them turning to watch and gape as they passed. The white guy, crestfallen, looked at me one more time. I just stared back, but Bill was crowing ecstatically and clapping me on the back. “We got ’em! Look at that, we GOT ‘EM!”
Sergeant Henderson had peeled off to talk to us, and bore Bill’s excited congratulations well. “Yes, we did get ’em,” he said patiently. Then turned to me. “So, thank you very much, you did great. Are you okay?”
“…I think so, yeah.” The adrenalin was wearing off. “I’m still a little freaked out, but…yeah.”
“You did great,” he repeated. “So – can we keep your info in case we need you to give a statement?”
“Okay…” he was scribbling in a notepad. “And…if we need you to testify before the grand jury, would you be willing to?”
“Uh?” I blinked. “Uh, when would that be?”
“Don’t know,” he said. “It may not even happen. But sometimes we do need witnesses to testify before the grand jury when we make our initial arrest. Would you be willing to do that?”
“Uh…yeah, sure, whatever you need.”
“Okay, great. We’ll let you know if we need that.” he snapped his pad shut. “Well, thank you again. You should be fine getting home, now – don’t worry, you saw we have the guys in custody, they’re not gonna get out.” (Yeah, we saw that!” Bill crowed again.) “We also are pretty sure they were acting alone, so you should be fine.”
I still looked a bit freaked out, so Bill gave me money for a cab. I think he even hailed it for me; I was still somewhat dazed and don’t really remember. I do remember Bill shaking my hand a lot and saying “we got ’em!” over and over as I was getting into the cab. I also don’t remember much of the cab ride home, either; or much of the walk up the two flights to my apartment. I don’t even remember my cat Zach coming to meet me at the door. The next thing I clearly remember, in fact, is that once I’d finally gotten a safe distance inside my apartment, I dropped my bag, let out the scream I’d been suppressing for two solid hours, and then called a friend and told them to come by and “bring plenty of alcohol because I need to be very drunk and you would not BELIEVE why.”