I was a thief.
When I was in second grade, I attended a night class on ice fishing with my dad in an elementary school one town over. To this day, I don’t remember anything about the content of the class. In fact, ice fishing strikes me as such a simple concept that I’m not sure quite why we had several weeks of lessons in a classroom that didn’t have a single live fish.
What I do remember was that the classroom had a library, and at one point I decided to see if they had any books that struck my fancy. There was one that interested me – some colorful kids’ book detailing fifty ways to save the environment – so I put it in my bag and brought it home. I had planned on returning the book, but I never got around to reading it before the fishing classes ended. Not wanting to tell my dad what I had done, I simply hid it in my closet and tried to forget about it.
Didn’t work. Stealing that book bothers me to this day.
Another time, probably two or three years later, I stole an anthology of Fox Trot comics from one of my friends. Much like before, I was over at his house and I wanted to read it, so I slipped it into my bag. I meant to give it back, but I never did.
There’s a feeling that you get when you steal something, a visceral thrill that you’ve just added something tangible to your life. Immediately your brain starts pumping out endorphins and endless possibilities. “Why stop here?” you think. “I can take ANYTHING!”
Of course, for most of us, that feeling is immediately followed by a much more overpowering feeling of guilt and shame. You stop thinking about how your life was improved and start imagining how much it would hurt if something that you loved was simply taken from you. And often this feeling persists far longer in you than in your victim. I doubt that school library ever noticed their book went missing, and I’m sure my friend forgot about that Fox Trot comic years ago.
I’ve never forgotten and I probably never will.
I bet you were a thief.
Children aren’t born with an innate understanding of our societal rules and values. The notion of ownership and theft is entirely cultural, and it takes a while for kids to learn lessons as simple as ‘don’t take other people’s stuff.’ That’s why it’s the moral of the story in a thousand different kids’ books, TV shows, and Sunday school lessons.
Of course, sometimes it takes experience in order to truly learn something. I didn’t take those books in order to find out what stealing something is like, but in doing so I essentially asked the world if I should be a thief and got a clear ‘no’ in return. I bet most of you have similar memories of childhood where you did something you knew was wrong just to find out what would happen.
Of course, some people stole and only got the initial rush of the theft, not the guilt that follows. Others powered through the remorse and learned how to suppress it and rationalize it away. People can justify nearly everything to themselves if they’re given enough time.
‘Theft’ is such a grey area these days, too. Many will tell you that online piracy is theft, even if you pirate something you weren’t going to buy or had no way to access legally. And nowadays, someone who doesn’t pirate anything feels as quaint as a granny with a dial-up modem and an AOL account.
Beyond that, what constitutes theft in a financial transaction? If I trade you a $5 card for a $4 card, did I just steal $1 from you? And what about high finance theft on a massive scale, like the still-mostly-unpunished subprime mortgage fraud of the early 2000s?
And after all, who are you really hurting by stealing a $4 pack of Magic cards from a large retailer like Target or Wal-Mart? Don’t they have a certain amount of their budget devoted to loss from shoplifting anyway? They won’t miss it, regardless – those companies make billions of dollars a year and you only make a few thousand.
And what about people who bring thousands of dollars worth of Magic cards to a large event? It’s not like these people are hard up for cash – they’ve got enough disposable income to fly thousands of miles to convention halls and throw down hundreds of dollars on pieces of cardboard in a children’s card game. Why NOT steal from them?
This is the sort of justification that many thieves use so that they can sleep at night. These thieves aren’t mustache-twirling cartoon villains, just regular people who cling to faulty logic in order to justify doing something despicable.
It’s important to realize that thieves don’t always wear ski masks, walk around in prison garb, or carry around a burlap sack with a giant dollar sign on it. Thieves are just like you, only they’ve managed to justify doing something that would make your blood boil.
A Dastardly Escalation
Widespread theft at Magic tournaments started creeping up in 2007-2008 around the time card values started getting certifiably insane. Before that, Standard cards topped out around $20 and Legacy wasn’t too popular.
Once the dual lands started climbing into the $40-$100 range and Tarmogoyf shattered the price ceiling on Standard, it became more common for nearly everyone at a tournament to be walking around with over a thousand dollars worth of cards on them at all times. Further, the Magic community was increasing in average age, and more overall income lead to card prices soaring even higher.
Theft, which was already an issue, kept getting worse. After all, a pickpocket at a carnival is lucky if he gets a wallet couple twenties. Steal the right bag at a Magic tournament and you might make ten grand.
By 2009, theft at Grands Prix were becoming rampant. I heard rumors back then about rings of organized thieves who would work GPs together. One person would grab a backpack and immediately hand it off to someone else, who would then hand it off to a third person in the hall. In thirty seconds flat, your bag would change hands three times and be out of the event hall, never to be seen again.
One ring of thieves was caught in dramatic fashion at GP: Chicago in March of 2009. Adam Shaw and James Elliott, two of the judges who were running the event, caught a suspect and tackled him to the floor. That incident lead to the lifetime banning of four Magic players and the recovery of thousands of dollars worth of cards.
While there was a bit of a drop-after that, high profile theft has been cropping up with a vengeance over the past year. In July, over $80,000 worth of cards were stolen at Gen-Con, including David Williams’ $20,000 Vintage deck and a set of Beta Power 9 from a dealer’s table. At Grand Prix Baltimore, Justin Parnell’s ($10,000+) foil cube was stolen.
The thieves are getting more brazen as well. At the last two GPs, there have been multiple reports of cars being broken in to and decks & backpacks being snatched through broken windshields. I’ve even heard reports of a major theft – over $100,000 worth of merchandise - from the storefront of a well-known retailer.
Magic theft isn’t new, but it’s gotten bad and is still getting worse. If you haven’t started putting in the effort to protecting your cards yet, now is the time.
Sometimes Bad Guys Make the Best Good Guys
In my article few weeks ago, I talked in depth about the availability heuristic, a term used to describe the fact that people assign more importance to things they’ve spent more time thinking about. I’ve found that this heuristic holds true when thinking about card theft as well. People who have had major parts of their collection stolen tend to see would-be thieves around every corner, while people who have never had a single thing go missing are far too trusting.
Paranoia is no fun, but neither is getting your Legacy deck swiped. This week, I want to take a realistic look at theft in the hopes of coming up with easily applicable countermeasures beyond the usual message of, “watch your stuff better.” You should be aware of who might be a thief, who they’re targeting, and how they operate.
And in order to learn all of that, I decided to seek out some thieves and ask them.
From the Mouths of Thieves
“It absolutely blows my mind how easy it is to steal from some people,” one thief told me. “People are just too nice, and that gives people like me openings to take advantage of them.”
I put the word out through Twitter that I was interested in having a conversation with anyone who’s had experience as a thief. In exchange for anonymity, they agreed to answer some of my questions in the hopes that I could get a sense of who these people were and how they operate.
Please understand that I personally do not know the identity of these people! I told them to contact me through anonymous channels and I have no way of tracking them down. It’s possible that everything I was told is a fabrication - thievery and lying do tend to go together. Even if this is the case, though, I feel that the information is valuable and interesting enough to approach as fact.
Why did these thieves agree to talk to me? I believe that some of them regret what they did (or in a few cases, still do) and wanted some catharsis. Others just wanted to brag.
An opportunistic thief who works out of local game stores shared this: “[I steal from] the inattentive or forgetful. The first binder I stole was from a 19-23 year old guy who scrubbed out of the tournament and left the store. He had left his trade binder under the table where he was sitting, and it was easy enough to go over, sit down in his seat, ask his opponent if he had trades, and slip his binder into my bag. In a more normal situation, if someone just leaves a deck box on the table between rounds when they go to the bathroom or grab food, it's easy enough to check to see if anyone is paying attention and just slide it into a bag.”
A thief who mostly works GPs and larger events had this to say about his marks: “The best people to target are the loudest mouthed most arrogant people. They tend to consider themselves infallible. I actually don't even worry about attention being on me. People literally will watch you steal someone’s stuff and not say anything because they think someone else will and they don't want to get involved.”
Another thief operated solely on people he traded with. “There usually weren't targets,” he told me. “I would invite [players] to trade with me, sit down across the table from them, and purposefully place the bottom of the binder on my lap with the top leaning against the table. It really wasn't anything fancy, just some ‘sleight of hand’ tricks so that they couldn't see that I was pulling cards and putting them in my lap.”
Indeed, it seems that trading is one of the activities that makes people the most vulnerable.
“I'm the guy who people come to for trades because I've got a lot of cards, I don't try to gouge people, and I'm a nice guy who will let you borrow cards,” a thief told me. “[In] one trade, I pulled three Primeval Titans out of a guys binder when he had four in there. As he flipped open my second binder, I slid one of them off the table into my hoodie's pocket.
He even asked me if I had pulled out three, so I flipped back to the page they were on, showed him his last copy, and said no, just two. You have to convince people that you're right, and lying right to their face is the easiest way to do it. People have called me on cards going missing from a trade, but I've always been able to brush them off, and to this day I've yet to have someone refuse to trade with me. If [he] had said ‘no, I'm sure that I had four and now there are only three between my binder and that pile of cards you've pulled. I'm going to go get the owner,’ I'd have been screwed. But, he didn't push it and lost out on $20.”
“Usually people would have their faces buried in my binder as I was picking through theirs,” another thief extrapolated. “I would make sure not to take anything too obvious so that they would come back looking, but often singletons were the easiest to steal. I would wait for them to be a little more occupied with what they were doing that what I was doing for any ‘trickery’ to happen. Pulling out every card above $20 in a binder is going to raise suspicion, so I would keep the trade just above ‘This is kid wants crap’ level and under ‘this kid wants to trade his commons for Vintage staples’ level.
“Standard cards what I go after,” the first thief confirmed. “They're easy to move and easy to find, so if you're ever called out for having more than you did, or they have less than they thought, it's easy to put the doubt in their mind that they may have traded it earlier - something that you just can't do with a Legacy staple. Caw Blade was a goldmine for me. Everyone wanted U/W lands, Stoneforges, and equipment. The turnover on all of those was insane. The middle of the road standard cards- Stromkirk Noble, Thalia, Champion of the Parish, and lands are my go-to cards.”
One thief even confirmed that he worked in a group that would target different stores. “I had two buddies from high school and we would travel to stores as far a hundred miles away so there were about 10 stores that we would rotate between,” he shared.
“One time, one of the other guys got caught with almost $100 worth of sealed product in his backpack (we were careful to never have over $100 on any one individual, as anything over $100 was not longer a misdemeanor) on our way out of a store. The guy working suspected him of acting strangely around the shelves of product (we got greedy that day and was taking over $500 retail out over two trips - punctuated by lunch) and stopped him on our way out. We all knew why, so the other guy and myself walked out as calmly as possible and dropped our bags in the car before going back in to check why the other guy hadn't come out - only to be ‘shocked’ that he had been stealing.
It was hard to pretend to be disgusted and mad at him - actually the only time lying has been hard for me. And on our drive back home, he was understanding that we had left him, and it was pretty clear that stealing as a group existed outside our normal friendship.”
Group snatching seems to be a fairly common occurrence, especially at larger events. “[We] have one or two spotters and one or two snatchers,” a GP thief admitted to me. “[We] make sure that everyone in the group knows where the car is and that the snatchers both have keys to get into the car.
Usually me or another one of the guys in the group will sit down and trade with a guy. As soon as I start showing out a binder of expensive stuff, the sheep crowd around. It’s incredible how many people will seriously turn away from their binders to watch someone else do something. That's when the snatcher can just walk up, grab it, and get to the car. If we're playing in the event, the snatchers [will] periodically go out and de-sleeve/de-binder everything. We usually keep the binders if they are super commonplace, but the rest we just drive down a road and pitch that crap out the window.”
It’s important to internalize several anti-theft countermeasures in each part of your tournament playing life. Obviously you don’t have to use all of them at your local FNM each week – despite what you read above, most theft takes place at large events – but it is always good to use caution when dealing with players you haven’t met before.
Even the friendliest people might have ulterior motives, and there are a few simple steps you can take to make yourself less of a target.
How to Avoid Being a Target When Playing
Keep track of your bag at all times. Make sure to loop your backpack strap around the leg of the chair you’re sitting on for your match and put it between your legs. I like to loop my strap around my leg as well just as an added precaution.
When leaving your bag in order to go to the bathroom or get food, make sure you take the time to make sure the friend you leave it with is going to keep it safe. If they’re in the middle of a pitched battle and you just kind of leave it near them, that is NOT securing your belongings. Remember that even your best friend isn’t going to think as much about your stuff as theirs, so any time you walk away from your bag you’re taking a risk.
“Something you should watch out for is ‘bag kicking,” I was warned by a thief. “This happens when someone places their bag next to their seat. A team of people will come by and nudge the bag with their feet, sometimes taking multiple passes until it is in the aisle. Then someone will pick it up and walk out with it.”
One deck at a time. Sitting down to playtest a game of Standard or jumping into a Commander battle? Keep your other decks in your bag, don’t just lay them randomly around the table. Keep all cards you aren’t currently using tucked away and safe.
Keep non-essentials in your car. Don’t bring every card you own to an event where you’re also playing constructed and hoping to trade – with all of those moving pieces, something is likely to go missing.
How to Avoid Being a Target When Trading
Leave your personal collection at home. Other traders already find it annoying when they look in your binder and see things that you don’t actually want to trade, especially when it’s a page of dual lands or beautifully altered cards. Leave the ‘splash’ page in your bedroom if you don’t want it to get snatched. Is it really worth the risk to get some brags in?
Further, at larger events with organized thieving rings, seeing so many valuable cards in one place is going to get a big target slapped on your back.
Get a side loading binder and distinct sleeves for your high-end trades. While the side loading Monster binders get stiff and start to melt in too much sunlight, the Ultra Pro side loaders are defect-free and quite nice. I keep all of my $10 and up cards in one of these after sleeving each one individually in a bright red Ultra Pro sleeve. If a thief wants to snatch one of my cards, he’s going to have to make an awkward motion to do so, as anyone who has ever owned a side loading binder can attest. The sleeve also makes the card harder to remove and increases its visibility so it’s harder to simply walk away with.
Never put multiple cards in one binder pocket. This is a triple whammy because it burns you in multiple different ways.
First, you’ll stretch out your binder pages, which means you’ll be constantly replacing them. They’re not expensive, but every little thing adds up.
Then if you remove a card from a stretched pocket, the other cards in it will be loose and will jostle around constantly. Not only does this lead to nicks and dings on the side of the card, but it makes it far more likely that the cards will spill out and go everywhere if the binder is turned sideways or upside-down.
Lastly, you open yourself up to a far greater chance of theft. If you have five Inkmoth Nexi in one pocket and a thief slips one out, when are you going to notice the missing card? Next week? Next month? Never?
Keep your binder flat on the table when trading. When playing a game of Magic, the rules state that you need to keep your hand clearly visible at all times. You can’t simply lower it under the table, because that opens things up for all manner of shenanigans.
I believe that we should make this common etiquette for trading as well. Don’t be afraid to tell someone to keep your binder flat & visible at all times.
One binder at a time. This is one I’m terribly guilty of, since I love being that guy with four binders open at once and doing multiple trades at the same time. It makes me feel like a big shot. That said, it is impossible to keep track of multiple binders of yours while also looking at your partner’s binder for sweet, sweet trades. From now on, don’t take your second binder out of your bag until your first one goes back in.
Keep your bag zipped. For convenience sake, it’s easiest to keep all the pouches in your backpack open at the same time That way you can load binders in and out in one motion while also getting at the boxes that likely contain your trade spoils of the night. Get into the habit of keeping these pouches zipped and you’ll reduce the chances of someone simply walking off with one of your boxes or books.
Special Tips for Large Events
Don’t cube on site. Cube is probably my second favorite format of all time and my cube is the crown jewel of my collection – many of the cards are irreplaceable due to sentimental value. If you feel the same way about yours, don’t bring it into the event hall.
I know that’s a dagger to people who use these events in order to meet new friends or cube with folks they haven’t seen in months, but trusting 8 people to flash $10,000+ worth of cards around a hall swarming with thieves is asking for it at this point. They’ll see your cube, figure out where you’re stashing it, and find a time to steal it – even if it means smashing in your windshield to do so.
If you want to travel with your cube, keep it in your room. Round up a draft group, and then go find an off-site location to play. This will drastically reduce the chance of a thief knowing about your cube at all.
“The easiest steal are cubes,” one thief told me. “The owners often turn away and feel as if it’s invincible. They take it out to get their binders or something else and they leave it on the table…nobody expects its gonna happen to something valuable because its valuable.”
Zip ties are your friend. At GPs and events like Gen Con, you’ll meet a much more sophisticated breed of thief. These guys won’t be deterred by a zipped backpack – they’ll get right in and swipe your deck in ten seconds flat. It won’t be possible on all backpacks, but if you have one that can be sealed shut with a zip tie, I recommend using this method if you really want to feel secure.
Be wary of odd situations. One trick thieves will pull is to drop a bunch of cards all over the floor right in front of you. While you help them clean up, their partner will snatch something of yours and walk away before you notice. I’m not saying that you always have to be looking for a scam, but keep your wits about you in situations that could be exploitative.
Practice safe parking. Thieves have now figured out that many Magic players have just started leaving their most valuable cards in their car and have started breaking in to these as well. If you’re attending a GP or PT, try to park somewhere with good visibility – either near a main road, the front gate, or within sight of an obvious security camera. Before you reach the site, you should also make sure that all valuables are safely stowed in your trunk and not sitting around your back seat.
Bring a friend. Two eyes are better than one. Four eyes are better than two. Mad-Eye Moody’s magic eye is likely better than four, but if you don’t have one of those I recommend having a buddy with you instead.
“Keep a friend with you and your stuff,” one thief suggests as a countermeasure. “If you have to go away, make sure no one's digging through your stuff. It's hard to lose things when your eyes are on them. It would always hinder me if the person that I sat down to trade with had a friend who was in our conversation and watching both parties.”
A Call to All Traders
The trading community should be the vanguard of change against the theft epidemic that is ripping through the tournament scene right now.
It is painfully clear that sitting down and trading at a Magic event is the single most vulnerable position you can put yourself in as a player. This is when the thieves have the best chance to strike, and people are starting to figure that out.
This is VERY bad news for us because it means that people will stop bringing trade binders to events. A time may come very soon when it won’t be worth the risk for most of us to risk our valuables being taken. I guarantee you quite a lot of folks are already leaving their binders at home thanks to this very legitimate fear.
Unfortunately, I feel as though there is an uneasy alliance at best and a real camaraderie at worst between many of the biggest trade grinders and the thieves.
“Most thievery happens during the trade process at the ‘shark tables’ where you see the usual bunch trading their hearts out all weekend,” one anonymous thief told me. “This is entirely because of the aura of safety that is created by trading, and I’d bet 99% of thefts that don’t involve leaving things behind happen in these trade atmospheres.
As most of the people on the thieves market are at all the events the sharks are at, they have a friendship with them, so when they come over to see a trade in progress and talk about magic their second agenda is actually to scout for the out of bag, long box, or deck box that belongs to the other trader… as they both look directly into the binders and pull things, he grabs it and walks away to his buddy’s car to check the spoils.”
This explanation rings true to me on a personal level. When I was at GP: San Diego in November, I sat at the shark table for a couple of hours trading for the high-end foils and Beta cards I needed to finish my cube. At one point I traded a Bazaar of Baghdad out of a Commander deck that my girlfriend Emma had built. I put the deck box down for a second and went back to my trade. By the time I remembered that I had left a deck box sitting on the table, it was gone.
The experience completely destroyed me for the rest of the day. Emma had designed the deck to try and win an online Commander deck building contest where first prize was an altered copy of The Mimeoplasm. After weeks of brewing, she finally had a list – one that won her the contest. Excited, I put the deck together for her only a few days before the GP. She hadn’t even had a chance to play with it yet. Dialing the phone to call back home and tell her that I had foolishly lost her deck was a moment I’m glad I don’t have to re-live.
I walked around the event in a daze after that, casually making trades and talking to people without much thought. I told my story to all the vendors, the head judge, and the TO, but there’s really nothing anyone can do about it at that point. If your deck is stolen, your only real option is to file a police report, which would help if you had insurance. There’s just no way to catch a thief in cases like this. There’s nothing anyone can do.
Against all odds, however, this story had a happy ending. The day after I wrote about the loss of my deck in this column, I got a message from a trade grinder telling me that he was given the deck by someone who had been sitting next to me that day. While I honestly do trust the people who handed Emma back her deck at Worlds a few weeks later (with the dual lands still intact!), I still have a hard time believing that it had been taken in error. I think it was taken by a thief who was a fan of this column and hadn’t recognized me at the event. When he realized that the deck had been mine, he decided to give it back.
Regardless of whether or not my conspiracy theory has any truth to it, it’s time to end any alliances that exist between traders and thieves. I don’t know if there are any kickback arrangements, if they promise not to steal from you, or simply whether the grinders just look the other way in tacit understanding. I don’t travel to enough events, frankly, to be a part of things on that level. All I know is that it needs to stop or people won’t feel safe enough to trade any more. It’s as simple as that.
My Twitter message managed to reach over a dozen Magic thieves, most of whom are still actively snatching cards at events. For each thief who was willing to talk to me, I’m sure there were at least ten more who had no interest in coming forward.
This tells me that most of the theft is coming from inside our community.
We’re not just dealing with outside influences here – most cards go missing because we have friends, teammates, partners, or acquaintances who steal while we turn a blind eye.
That needs to stop.
Magic cannot exist without a strong and vibrant community. Stealing a deck or a binder is not like pirating a song – every single card you snatch is a card that someone else is actively losing. It’s going to make them feel worse about Magic and worst about attending events. It’s already started to create a culture of fear and paranoia during weekends that are supposed to be about friends coming together and sharing in a hobby that has become so much more for those of us who place it near the center of our lives. I would be shocked if every single thief hasn’t already driven multiple people away from Magic for good.
“Why do I steal? I actually have no idea why,” one of the thieves told me. “I know that I started when I didn't have the money for things that I wanted. Now however, I'm not sure. I've been doing it for years now, haven't gotten caught, and haven't really benefited from it. I'm sure losing a fully foiled Caw Blade deck meant a lot more to the guy I stole it from than owning it and selling it off bit by bit did to me, but that didn't stop me from doing it. I understand that stealing is wrong, and I would not like to have my stuff stolen from me, but at the same time it is actually just so easy that it is hard to justify not doing.”
Another thief had a different take. “What makes me steal? Man, if you never have, it’s the biggest rush ever. I don't feel like I am owed it or anything, [but] I do have the "I’m gonna get MINE’ mentality…Stealing something reminds me of the crazy rush I got from the first time I smoked a joint. I was doing something BAD and it felt AWESOME.”
As honest people who cannot relate to those sad and disgusting ways of viewing the world, we will not be able to stop all theft from occurring at Magic events. Some professional thieves will be quicker and sneakier than you, and we will have to hope that they will eventually make a mistake and find themselves behind bars.
I do think, however, that we can stop a good 90% of them simply by being more vigilant and aware of our surroundings.
There’s no magic formula to stop a thief, but even if you simply start thinking more about the safety of your cards and adopting a few of my suggestions, you’ll make it harder for people like the above criminal from his thefts of opportunity.
Until next time –
- Chas Andres