If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you quickly adapt to a certain level of chaos and social unrest. Even if you can survive the absurd rental market, the Bay Area is bound to take some toll on you. In my case, since moving to the Bay Area in 2015, I have developed a strong fear of laptop thieves.

The first time I witnessed a laptop theft, I was at Hawk and Pony, a popular coffee shop in Oakland, California. A guy walked in wearing fancy running shoes and a trim-fitting, navy blue hoodie with the hood pulled down low over his forehead. Without a moment’s hesitation, he walked right up to one of the nearest tables, grabbed the laptop sitting there, and bolted. The laptop wasn’t even unattended. The owner was sitting right there. It all happened so quickly that at first the owner didn’t even move. But then he jolted out of his seat and, apparently acting on instinct, went chasing madly after the thief.

I watched them both run across the street — through oncoming traffic — and disappear around the side of the donut shop. This episode was so surreal it was almost comical. But I also didn’t return to Hawk and Pony for three months.

The second time I witnessed a laptop theft, I was at Haus, a coffee shop in San Francisco’s Mission District. Very similar situation. A guy walked in wearing fancy running shoes and a track suit. He walked to the back of the coffee shop, stood there inconspicuously for a moment, grabbed a laptop off a table, and bolted. A guy tried to block the entrance but the thief just plowed right through him. The laptop owner and two other guys gave chase, but they were back in a few minutes, empty handed.

Beware Laptop Thieves! Warning! Computer Snatchers Are Grabbing Computers!

If you go to either of these coffee shops today, you’ll see signs posted all over their walls: Beware Laptop Thieves! Warning! Computer Snatchers Are Grabbing Computers! But these aren’t the only establishments with a theft problem. It’s all over. By the headlines, Caffe Strada in Berkeley seems to have it particularly bad. And it’s not random. According to cops I’ve heard discuss this problem, laptop thievery is an organized operation.

Knowing all this, I still regularly take my laptop to coffee shops. But I’ve noticed that my behavior has changed. Whenever I sit behind my computer at a coffee shop, I never entirely relax. The moment someone enters, my eyes dart to the door. If anyone makes a quick movement, I instinctively grip the side of my laptop. If I’m in a seat where someone can walk behind me, I’m always on high alert.

A bunch of articles have come out recently describing the psychological trauma inflicted by offices with an open floorplan. For example, according to Inc.com, open-plan offices can stimulate harmful hormones: “When you sit with your back exposed, your body constantly produces the stress hormone cortisol, which negatively affects your weight and immune system while creating a greater risk of chronic disease.”

If you take that feeling, but add to it the twist that you have to actively worry about your co-workers stealing your belongings at any moment — that’s the feeling I now experience when I sit behind my laptop at coffee shops. It’s like I’m continually supplementing my caffeine intake with shots of cortisol.

Essentially, I seem to have developed a mild kind of kleptophobia. The fear of being robbed. Or, more specifically — someone tell urban dictionary — café kleptophobia, the fear of getting your laptop jacked at the local coffee shop when all you want to do is feed your addictions to screen-time and caffeine.

Kleptophobia is apparently triggered by a negative event. In this case, that would be witnessing laptop thefts. It wasn’t too long ago when I would totally scoff at the idea that laptop thieves were something to worry about. I used to brazenly leave my laptop open on a table in the middle of a coffee shop as I stepped away to take a phone call or a bathroom break. The longer I left it sitting there unattended, the more confident I became that it was totally safe. I wouldn’t even bother to ask the person closest to me to keep an eye on my stuff. In fact, I’d silently judge the people who did that, as if they’d flunked some sort of test for being a risk-taking cool kid.

The way those laptops got stolen…it really was a crazy thing to see. It was just obvious that these guys — the thieves — were professionals.

Obviously, that changed the moment I saw how it happened. The way those laptops got stolen…it really was a crazy thing to see. It was just obvious that these guys — the thieves — were professionals. They’d done this before. They were good at it. And, on top of that, they were guys that you wouldn’t want to mess with. I don’t mean that in the sense that they were hardened criminals with tear-drop tattoos, but rather that they were fit, even ripped. Athletic in the high school quarterback variety.

Now when someone asks me to watch their laptop while they step away for a moment, I judge them for an entirely different reason. I think, “Are you crazy? You’re just going to leave your thousand-dollar laptop sitting there wide out in the open? As if my half-hearted presence two seats away makes any impression whatsoever on the next track-suit-wearing Olympian sprinter who walks in that door with his eye out for a new MacBook Pro?”

If I seem a little over-the-top with my assessment of the laptop thief threat, there are two more pieces to this story. The first is that I have personally had a laptop stolen. Not from a café, but from a car break-in. And it wasn’t fun. Aside from the monetary impact, I lost all kinds of intellectual property that for whatever reason hadn’t been backed up properly. So I know what it feels like to lose a laptop, and I know I never want to go through that again.

The final piece to this story is an entirely different level of tragedy. In 2017, a local musician named Dave Deporis had his laptop swiped while he was at Hawk and Pony in Oakland. Similar to the two incidences I witnessed, Deporis chased after the thief. But Deporis lost more than his laptop. According to SFGate:

Witnesses said the 40-year-old Deporis grabbed on to the side of a red Audi sport utility vehicle the robber jumped in and was briefly dragged until he slipped beneath the wheels of the vehicle and was run over.

No arrests were made in the robbery, and Deporis was pronounced dead at a local hospital.

I was living in Oakland at the time. For months, I walked past the sidewalk shrine in memory of Deporis. It was impossible not to feel deep sympathy for his family and friends, and rage toward the thieves that would cause such a thing to happen.

Years later, I still have those same strong feelings. It’s also endlessly frustrating that we live in a society where people are driven to stealing laptops, whatever the reason might be. I’m sure it’s just another symptom of the broader socioeconomic inequalities impacting every aspect of Bay Area life these days.

It’s quite the irony, isn’t it? The same region that creates this amazing technology is also the place where people live in perpetual fear of getting that same technology stolen right from under their fingertips.

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