There's a small sign on the wall inside the USA gas station in Oakdale. It includes a photo of a vandalized car and the words, "Will You Be His Next Victim?"
Debbie Carreira sees that sign whenever she visits the station, across F Street from the Edward Jones investment office she manages. She can't not look.
Last summer, Carreira didn't become "his" next victim. She became "her" next victim. You see, there is no gender barrier among thieves.
Carreira spent most of last summer trying to get her life back in order and her new laptop computer back in her hands after a thief disrupted her Florida vacation. As a result, Carreira says, she'll never leave her car unlocked again -- even for a moment.
"It just really educated us," she said.
In May 2007, Carreira and her husband, Dan, went to Florida with friends Bob and Julie Trombley of Tuolumne City. They had it all planned out: the husbands would take water skiing lessons, the women would enjoy the sun and the shopping, and they'd all eventually get to Disney World as an aside.
A few months before they left, someone sent Debbie an e-mail containing a video showing how thieves targeted women drivers as they gassed up in the citrus state. She sent the link on to other friends and eventually forgot its message: Always keep your car locked.
On their first day in Florida, near Orlando, they stopped for lunch at a combination gas station and restaurant. They locked their rental car and went inside, unaware they were being watched. All of the tables were occupied, so the quartet drove to a small park across the street. Three of them leaned against their unlocked rental car and the fourth sat near a tree.
"It's funny, because I remember I was thinking about that stupid e-mail," Carreira said.
She decided to take some pictures, and reached into the car to grab her camera from her white carry-all bag. The bag was gone. It also contained her wallet and all of its goodies: her cash, credit cards and identification. It also held their airline tickets, her car keys and her new laptop computer.
The thief was pretty darned brazen, to snag their stuff with four people so close. Carreira found her camera on the ground near the car, but that was all.
"Everything's gone, and the door's wide open," she said. "We never saw anything. We never heard anything. We never felt anything."
Until the panic set in, followed by the anger.
"We called the police and got everything (credit cards, airline tickets) stopped," Carreira said.
She called Dell to report the computer theft. Her mother-in-law back home FedEx'd Carreira her expired driver's license and an extra set of car keys, so that they could drive home from the airport once they returned to California.
They finished their vacation, getting searched at every checkpoint in the airport because she used her expired driver's license. The airline had to issue new tickets.
A royal pain, eh?
Once back in Oakdale, she set about reclaiming her life, if not her property. She got a new driver's license and credit cards. And she kept in touch with the police back in Florida.
In June, the police recovered her computer, and called Dell, which called her.
She called the police in Kissimmee, Fla., and a detective explained she'd been a victim of a huge identity theft and drug ring.
They'd arrested the woman who stole Carreira's belongings. The 45-year-old suspect used Carreira's laptop for the ring's "business." The woman also had 400 stolen credit cards and told police she'd run up $250,000 in fraudulent charges in a year's time, Carreira said.
Carreira eventually would get her computer back, police said, but not her driver's license. She waited and waited.
By the way, she had bought the laptop only a week or so before the trip. The crooks ultimately possessed it longer than she did, and the authorities kept it longer than the crooks.
"The law agencies had my computer for 60 days," Carreira said.
If she wanted it back, police said, she'd have to pay the freight charges. The irony? She charged the shipping to an account that replaced one of her canceled stolen cards.
A package arrived via UPS, delivered to her workplace in late July or early August. And what did Brown do for her? It added more intrigue.
"I opened up the box and there was this black bag inside," Carreira said. "It was gross, dirty and nasty. Inside was my laptop, wrapped in a bubble bag. But there was all kinds of other stuff in this bag, too. There were USB (connectors) that weren't mine. And I pulled out this small plastic bag -- two inches wide, six inches long and this isn't a sandwich bag -- of white powder."
The thief, she remembered, was a druggie.
"They'd sent me all of her stuff, including that little white bag," Carreira said.
She called the police evidence room in Kissimmee, and the clerk simply told her to send everything back, except the laptop, of course.
"They were really nonchalant about it," Carreira said. "I was scared to death."
Really -- send drugs back through the U.S. mail? And what if the package -- bearing her name and return address -- draws the attention of some drug-sniffing German shepherd?
"All I could see is the headlines," Carreira said, "including the place where I work: 'Drugs found.' "
So what to do, then?
"Do I dump it down the toilet?" she wondered.
She called the Kissimmee police detective, who didn't return her call this time. Next, she tried Oakdale police.
Sgt. Mike Nixon arrived at the office a short time later and inspected the powder.
"As soon as he saw it, he got rubber gloves on," she said.
Nixon took the substance to the station.
"We tested it for everything," Nixon said. "Cocaine. Methamphetamine. Heroin."
And? Try Purex or Cheer.
"It was laundry detergent," he said. "(Druggies) use it to cut their product."
Nixon then spoke with the detective in Florida to confirm Carreira's story.
"He said it was all part of a big drug and identity theft ring," Nixon said.
Carreira sent the rest of the evidence back to Florida, and breathed a sigh of relief.
She hasn't taken a vacation since. But the next time she does, she'll be a smarter traveler for the experience -- the ultimate in "been there, done that."
"I don't care if you are leaning on the car," she said. "Lock it. I'm paranoid about locking my car now."
Carreira never wants to be a thief's next victim -- his or hers -- again.eff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2383.