How to Catch a Thief in the Digital Age

“Stealing, of course, is a crime, and a very impolite thing to do. But like most impolite things, it is excusable under certain circumstances. Stealing is not excusable if, for instance, you are in a museum and you decide that a certain painting would look better in your house, and you simply grab the painting and take it there. But if you were very, very hungry, and you had no way of obtaining money, it would be excusable to grab the painting, take it to your house, and eat it.” ― Lemony Snicket

I asked myself today, “When is it OK to steal?” We’ve had our banana stocks stolen every year because they are close to the small sandy path on the border of our property by the lake. Were they hungry thieves? Is that excusable?

We aren’t novices in crimes of opportunity. We live in a developing country and we understand that anything left out is fair game for people passing by our property. We’ve had hammocks, water hoses, and a fish trap stolen because we forgot to bring them into the house at night. We’ve had an iPhone stolen and a pair of Ron’s shoes by workers who came into our house to work.

Is stealing ever excusable?

Today, I felt betrayed by a young friend. Lauren started coming to our house with her dad when he was building our casita. She was 10 years old and we would make cookies and cupcakes together, draw and paint, and play card games. We developed a close relationship. I seem to have that effect on 5th graders. They like to hang with me.

As she matured into a teenager, she didn’t come to visit as often. When she did, we would give each other manicures and do girlie stuff together. The last time I saw her was last August. I was busy weeding the garden and I told her I couldn’t spend the morning with her. She asked to use the bathroom, and I should have followed my intuition. Something was not right. I found her in the living room and she looked guilty about something, then left quickly.

I didn’t give it much thought. Months passed. I looked for the phone, but figured I had misplaced it and the battery was too low for it to ring. We hardly ever used the Samsung. Lauren never came back to visit. Then, last night I had a dream where I saw Lauren put my cell phone in her purse. Was my gut feeling trying to awaken my consciousness through my dream?

This morning, I checked her Facebook page. I knew she didn’t have a phone and rarely posted. However, when I scrolled through her Facebook page, she had posted selfies every day since last August. And not just normal cute selfies…very sexually provocative selfies. She just turned 15 in November and I was shocked by her selfies. What was going on with her?

I wondered if my old phone number still worked because we still had the phone on our data plan. Long story about that, but Claro advised me not to remove the old phone number from my plan because I would have to start all over again with a more expensive plan. So, I called my old phone number!


It rang, and rang, then went to voice mail. “Hola, this is Lauren. Leave me a message.”

OMG! I didn’t know whether to cry or scream! We hurried to her house. Lauren was raking the yard. “Dame mi telefono, arrita!.” Give me my telephone now! She reached into her pocket, and handed me the phone. No apologies, no regrets. She wanted the chip in the phone. I refused to give it to her and she stomped to the kitchen. I followed and talked with her mother.

“What did Lauren tell you about the phone?” I asked her mother. “She told me that you gave it to her as a gift,” she responded. How could I respond? I gently told her that she took the phone from my house the last time she visited and my heart was broken. Then, I left.

There are several points I would like to make about this story. The first point is that it is much easier to catch a thief in the digital age. We have apps like Find my Phone and social media where we can connect with our local communities to offer information about crimes that take place in our area. Facebook helped me track Lauren, simply because I knew her Facebook posting patterns. My friend, Sarah, wrote the story below about the epic tale of finding her iPhone through her Find my Phone app.

The Epic Tale of a Lost Phone Recovered

The second point is that poverty usually doesn’t create thieves. Living in Nicaragua, I see the poorest of the poor daily and they beg for food and small coins, but rarely do they steal. In fact, the poor are the most generous people I know. They are the first to share a humble meal of rice and beans with strangers. They are the first to offer assistance if help is needed. They ask for nothing in return, only a kind handshake or a grateful hug.

No! A lack of moral guidance, a sense of entitlement, and possibly the thrill or an addiction to drugs like crack, create thieves. Of course, people faced with a huge hardships are sometimes forced to steal to feed their hungry children or are in dire need in times of war and famine.  I  would call those circumstances excusable.

What was Lauren’s excuse? She wasn’t hungry. She wasn’t poor, at least not by Nicaraguan standards of poverty. I think it was easier for her to steal from someone who appeared to be well-endowed, had so much more. She probably thought I wouldn’t even miss the phone, and if I did, I could just buy another one. To her, I seemed like legitimate prey. She felt entitled to steal my phone. She convinced herself that she had a right to get what she desires. She needed it more than I did. It was rightfully hers.

Which brings me to my final point. When people steal, should there be reasonable consequences for their actions? I say reasonable because I wanted to smack the crap out of Lauren when she responded to me with indifference, only demanding that I give her back her chip in my phone.

I felt betrayed and angry! Once I returned home and calmed down. I knew that she needed to have reasonable consequences for her actions. I posted a picture of her MY phone on her Facebook page with a message to her friends: I recovered my phone that Lauren took from my house in August when she visited me.  If you try to call this phone, her number is no longer available.

I hoped her friends would think twice about stealing and getting caught. Next, Theresa and I went to the police.Theresa speaks much better Spanish than I do. She was awesome! Thanks for your help, Theresa.  Basically, I repeated my story, my relationship with Lauren, and how I recovered my phone. We showed them her selfies on Facebook and they asked, “Is she selling her body?” Even the police were shocked by her selfies.

Since the police are voices of authority in Nicaragua, I asked if they would go to her house and talk with her parents with Lauren present and show them her selfies that she took with my phone. I wasn’t seeking revenge, only appropriate consequences. I knew if I said nothing, she would continue her out of control behavior. She needed an intervention, someone to take control.

The police listened attentively, and when they wanted to take notes, I had to lend them a pen. The poor, poor police have a bare bones office. There are a few plastic chairs in an empty room. They suggested a verbal restraining order. I thought that was a great idea. She wouldn’t be permitted to come to my house again. They also suggested that she pay for five months of my Claro phone plan as restitution since she used my sims card. Another great idea. Although I know i will never see any money, she will understand there are consequences for her actions.

Sometimes tough love is the only way to go! Will it help Lauren? I hope so, but I don’t know for sure. There are many troubled children in Nicaragua who have no support system, and no one to turn to for guidance.

Thievery is a universal problem, not restricted to Nicaragua and certainly not a result of poverty in most cases. I hope the best for Lauren. I hope that her right of passage into the teenage years is redirected to a better road of independence. I hope she gets the support that she needs.

As for me, it is difficult to recover from the feeling of betrayal. This isn’t the first time it has happened and it probably won’t be the last.

Yet, through every experience…good and bad…I have a better understanding of myself and others. And I am going to take a big basket of office supplies with lots of pens and snacks for the police to show my appreciation for helping me help Lauren.

What are your experiences with catching thieves in the digital age? 

24 thoughts on “How to Catch a Thief in the Digital Age

  1. Sorry for your shock and hurt, the betrayal… but its the same …worldwide now.

    It happens in the states , in Canada , here in Portugal …wherever…small towns , big towns , cities , villages , in Iceland , wealthy communities , in poor areas…
    and with the naked inappropriate selfies …same thing … everywhere now…
    its the cool thing to do now …all ages , poor …whatever….. totally sad.

    What I believe is…..

    Be in the world , but not of it.

    This is written in the bible …Gods word. Goes wayyyyyyy back….

    The world is destructive and …is getting worse….fast… as you see …. no surprise.

    Walk your talk the right thing …we all know what that means …

    and if you don’t ..u will suffer …sometime ..somewhere.

    Much light to ya ….. Im really loving my new home here in the Azores!!
    and Happy New Year ..xo

  2. I heard on a radio program years ago that the young people today don’t even want to own cars like we did as teenagers, waiting to get our license and get out on the road. They want phones. Who would of thought that??? I guess that is everything to them. Their thrill is communicating with their friends and partying or playing at being adults, which is what being mobile in the car sense, did for us when we were young. I guess its the same thing, being able to leave their mark, in her case, with her provocative photos. Lets hope she just grows up to be a sensible young person.

  3. Experiences like yours are so disenchting on many levels.. the trust that slowly built between the two of you, your mentoring which came from a pure heart — only to discover she was veering into a secret other life…the shock of discovery, first of what happened to your phone and then what she was doing in that secret cyber world. then were had the lovely gift of trying to find a way vi tough love – to make her accountable, to try to find a way to diffuse the direction she’s going, etc etc… all the while trying to stay calm and not react via emotion but of wisdom…. hopefully this helped diffuse the diretion she was heading and will steer her back on a better path.

    today i drove the carpennter to his house where we picked up the table he made, and i had coffee with his mother, met more of their family, and we returned about an hour later. we had taken his tools back to his house, the wheel barrow, etc, but the misc boards, treated bamboo, blocks were on the curbside of this petite alley…. we returned, and i noticed that the boards were gone. maybe the owners put them in a safe place? no. they’re gone, and no one knows a thing… imagine that.

      • there’s a book, ‘Savages’ written by Joe Kane, which tells a great true story about a group of Indians from Ecuador’s Amazon…they were distressed at what the oil companies were doing to their homeland…. that book helped me understand the psyche of the Indians – or some of them at least… I suspect what hppened to the boards was along that sort of thinking – it ws there, and they could use it….

  4. Thanks for sharing this story and good for you going to the Police. We had to fire a maid of many years who hid my husband’s old, rusty rollo-dex under her bed. Why? We will never know, but there must be consequences and broken trust is hard to mend.

  5. I think your responses were just right and I agree with the comments as well. Good for you for taking office supplies to the police station! The part that struck me the most in your post is something I’ve believed my entire life:

    “No! A lack of moral guidance, a sense of entitlement, and possibly the thrill or an addiction to drugs like crack, create thieves. Of course, people faced with a huge hardships are sometimes forced to steal to feed their hungry children or are in dire need in times of war and famine. I would call those circumstances excusable.”

    It’s sad that there seem to be more and more people falling into this category.


  6. The worst part is the friendship that you thought you had and they destroy it by stealing from you. You did the right thing. And it would be a whole other post on lending “friends” money.

  7. What’s so sad about your story, Debbie must be the feeling that the time you spent developing a relationship with Lauren over the years was taken so lightly by her. Not only was your phone stolen but the investment of time, trust and building a friendship with Lauren by doing things with her and opening your home to her. It’s also hard to take in that she expressed no guilt or even shame when you confronted her. This isn’t a tale of a poor girl stealing what she needs but of a girl taking what she wants, with no thought of right and wrong. Hopefully her parents will be able to intervene before she becomes another of those sad and desperate, very young girls we saw in Nicaragua holding yet more babies … Anita P.S. And I love your gesture of support for the local police.

    • Anita, I can deal with my hurt. I will survive. But, I am worried about Lauren and others who need support, or at least consequences for their actions. We have learned that if we want something done, we have to do it ourselves. I am considering putting a sign in front of my house that either says “psychic readings” or “detective agency”. LOL Just kidding, but I have become a great detective here, not by choice.

  8. Oh dear… that is a sad story! It’s hard to condone stealing, under any circumstances, but having your property taken by a friend or family member is a very bitter pill to swallow. It’s especially puzzling how a child you befriended and helped could do this. And an unfortunate result is that you will probably always think twice, now, before you show similar kindnesses to other children, especially giving them the run of your house.

    • Exactly, Sandra. Many of my Nicaraguan friends have said that this situation makes us all look bad. True in a way, but I can’t let it destroy the trust I have in my friends. I can only put tempting things away and never allow anyone to be alone in my house. I hate that because that is not how I live, but I guess I will have to change.

  9. No I’ve never had a situation like this, but i think you handled it appropriately. Tough love is exactly what Lauren needs and I hope she learns from this experience. Luckily I live in a portion of the US where we don’t have thief’s afoot all the time to take whatever is left out, or whatever they think they’re entitled to. I’m fortunate because I know not all communities are like this one. I think it would take a lot for me to believe that stealing is okay.

    • Sunni, we never locked our car or our house in the states. We, too, lived in place where it was rare to hear of a break-in. But, we live in a different world now. Sometimes I think Nicaraguans resent us because we have so much and they have so little. I know my little community doesn’t feel that way because we share so much with the families and the school. But, we’ve been here a long time and have a good reputation. Thanks, Sunni for your thoughtful comments.

  10. That’s quite a tale. First, I have to say I think you handled it perfectly. Tough love is exactly what’s needed in situations like that. “Accountability” is another word for it. I think your idea for helping the police is a good one, too: practical, as well as generous.

    I’ve never had to deal with having property stolen, although I was mugged in Houston years ago. I didn’t lose much, and got my purse back, so that was good. (An old couple found it in their flower bed. The thief probably tossed it there when he discovered he’d mugged me for 89 cents.)

    The thievery that drives me nuts is content theft on the web. For a while, it was really, really bad, and I spent hours every week doing DMCA take-downs. I got to be pretty good about finding the jerks who’d lifted my posts and plunked them into their money-making sites. It’s not nearly so bad, now. I have no idea why, but I’m happy about it.

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