Don't get robbed when you hold a garage sale

Summer is officially upon us, which means those rites of summertime in Chicago--baseball, outdoor concerts, street fairs, and yard sales, are in full swing. I love combing community yard sales on warm summer mornings, for the social banter as much as the finds, some treasure you weren’t even looking for. In the anonymity of the city we don’t often get a chance to interact with our neighbors. Then there’s all the lemonade.

My own experience in hosting yard sales has been mixed. But there’s one potential trap I fell  into that you should know about if you host one. Some of these points will sound obvious, but I only wish they had been more obvious to me years back.

There are people who drive around neighborhoods looking for Yard Sale and Garage Sale signs. But they’re not interested in what you’re selling. They want to rob you. They couldn’t care less about stealing your junk, they want your cash. They look for unattended purses and wallets.

They might work solo, rifling under tables and whatnot for bags when you’re distracted with buyers. They might work in pairs, with one distracting you by asking questions or buying things while the other tries to find unlocked doors to your house.

Consider my experience.

I was clearing out my late mother’s house and in between trips to consignment shops and charity thrift stores, I held a garage sale. I posted handmade signs around the neighborhood. I pondered what to sell and how much to price items. Crime was the furthest thing from my mind. It was a so-called “safe, low-crime,” sleepy, lower-middle-class suburb.

The sale was going fine and I had sold a few things. I wore a fanny pack to hold the cash I received. At one point in the afternoon a friendly, bubbly young woman got out of a car across the street and ran toward the garage. My (then naïve) brain registered: Woman = safe. Woman = not a criminal. She wanted to know if I was selling any costume jewelry. I hadn’t put any out, but there were a couple of jewelry boxes upstairs.

This is where I got stupid. I was so eager to sell things, and so over-trusting, that I brought her in the house. I would never have let a strange man in the house. The alternative was leaving her unattended with all my stuff while I went inside to get the jewelry. I wish I had done that instead. I had nothing super valuable down there.

We went upstairs and I showed her the jewelry. She admired it all and even bought something. I began to get a creeping uneasy feeling because she seemed overly chatty, as if she was trying to keep me in the room. I had an uncomfortable sensation of being almost cornered in the small room, which I was.

Then I thought I heard a very faint sound from downstairs. Was it my overactive imagination? Was I being unduly paranoid? Then I remembered I hadn’t thought to lock the downstairs door behind me. My suspicions now fully aroused, I began to move her toward the door and out of the room.

Back downstairs, we said our goodbyes and she thanked me and got into a car. Except now I saw what I hadn’t before. There was a guy in the driver’s seat; she hadn’t been alone.

I immediately thought of my purse, which I had made a point to keep out of the garage and in the living room, on the floor in between an easy chair and side table. I pulled out my wallet, opened it and found what I expected to find, which was nothing inside.

It could have been a lot worse, in retrospect. I could have had a large amount of cash in there, instead of about 35 bucks. I could have been physically attacked and hurt.

I had walked right into the trap.  I learned, the hard way, what not to do when you hold a garage sale.

Don’t be by yourself. It makes you a sitting duck. Think of how busy and distracted you get. Try to have at least one person with you who can keep an eye on people while you’re occupied helping someone or if you have to go into the house. Thieves, pickpockets and purse snatchers prey on people who are distracted, and not just at yard sales.

Keep doors locked at all times, even if you’re just running inside for a minute. Obviously, never let a stranger in the house for any reason, man, woman or child, no matter how innocent they seem.

Keep purses and wallets hidden away in a safe place inside, not sitting out on a table or chair or some other place in the house they can easily be seen. Never have them in the vicinity of the sale.

Keep the money you collect at the sale on your person, not in a box or bag that can be snatched when you’re not looking.

Don’t assume you won’t be the target of a thief because it’s a “safe” neighborhood. These people usually aren’t from the immediate neighborhood; they drive around town looking for victims.

If you follow all these steps you'll have much less chance of becoming the sucker that I was. Don't be me.

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