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Are You Prepared for Unpredictable Losses?
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By Seth A. Maislin

Originally published in the Freelance Editorial Association News, Fall 1995. Reproduced here with minor edits.

It happened to me on July 20, 1995.

  Imagine coming home, late, on a warm summer night. You approach your front door to unlock it and find that the door is already open. You remember closing and locking the door when you left. There are objects on the floor in the front hall that don't belong in the front hall. A light is left on. Someone has broken into your home.

  I had no idea what I would find -- or not find -- on the other side of my front door. Electronics, jewelry, and personal items worth close to $5,000 were missing. Different valuable items -- the television, inline skates, spare car keys -- remained in my apartment. Luckily, my computer (including printer, modem, and software) had not been stolen. The thieves had climbed two flights of construction scaffolding to enter through the kitchen window.

  This was my first experience with theft, and I hope it will prove to be the only one. However, it is this "learning" experience that inspires me to write this article.

First Response to a Theft

  What do you do when you find your front door is inappropriately unlocked?

  Safety is the first concern. The thieves may still be in your home. The first step is to contact the police. Dial 911 from a pay phone or a neighbor's house.

  You can expect to wait up to an hour for police to arrive, depending on where you live and the time of day. That's okay. Take the extra time to collect your thoughts, to remember what time you arrived and when you left. Ask a friend to come over. Arrange for someplace else to sleep. No matter how composed you think you are, give yourself time to recover emotionally. I called a friend who didn't mind being awakened at 1AM on a weeknight.

  When the police officer arrived at my apartment, I told him I had not yet entered the apartment. He asked me when I left the apartment that evening, when I returned, where I called 911 from, if I noticed anything missing and what, and asked if I had a place to stay. I was fortunate because the officer was a detective working overtime, and to pass the next hour he searched for fingerprints. (Unfortunately for me, I learned that dusty surfaces collect no prints!) He retrieved one viable fingerprint and asked if I would mind being fingerprinted myself to determine if the print was my own.

  The officed helped me fill out an initial police report, including any information on the items I noticed were missing, and handed me another form to be filled out within the week. He told me I might find other items missing over the next couple of days and that I should write down anything that I discovered missing or vandalized. In fact, a week passed before I found my leather jacket missing, and more time passed before I noticed that my old wristwatch had been stolen as well.

  If you have insurance, call your agent immediately, or at least the next morning. They will ask only for your insurance number, what you think was stolen (similar to the preliminary police report), when you think the theft took place, and the police report number. You will then be instructed that an agent will contact you soon. Because I had property insurance and told the agent I needed to replace some items for my business, the agent called me the next business afternoon.

  Plan on how (or whether) to contact your clients, and make an emergency jump-start of your business. Buy, rent, charge, or borrow the equipment you need. Retrieve backups of your electronic files and paper archives. Double-check that your insurance policy isn't going to change now that you are making a claim, and purchase more insurance as needed.

  Finally -- and this is important -- copy everything again. Replace your spares. We have all heard the story of the flat spare tire. It can happen again. Accept that you have learned your lessons the hard way, and apply them now.

Contacting Your Clients

  I was able to work around my loss, at least temporarily. However, had my computer been stolen, I would have lost an amazing amount of material: two years of invoices and confidential business correspondence, important backup copies of on-line editing work. the most up-to-date copy of my novel, and a half-written article I was writing. I also keep disk copy of my credit card numbers, phone numbers, addresses, and email addresses.

  If your computer (and software) is stolen, you have a responsibility to contact your clients. If you were working on a project or expecting a project over the next couple of days, notify clients of potential delays. If work-in-progress were missing, you'd have to tell them that, too. In fact, if your office were destroyed by fire, original documents might be lost, as well as invoices and bills, addresses and phone numbers, and your calendar -- in addition to your computer, telephone, furniture, and office supplies.

  If you can insulate your client from the burden of recovery, do so. Evaluate the span and consequences of any delay. Determine how to gain access to equipment you need, copies of documents, important phone numbers, and enough money to buy replacement supplies. Know which freelancers and staff employees might be able to pick up where you left off. In fact, taking time to fully anticipate the consequences a theft demonstrates a level of responsibility that can go far with clients.

  Then, after you have exhausted all possibilities, call each client. Be honest, be concise, and remain professional. In general, clients are not interested in hearing a sob story, not when the production schedule is at risk. Ask if your clients maintained copies of original material. If not, although the situation is entirely out of your hands, you can still make helpful suggestions. Not only does this make the loss less tragic for your client, it also upholds and even strengthens the relationship that you already have. You are obligated by contract and ethics to do your best, and you will be rewarded for it.

  Remember: Freelancing is business. Your loss is a business loss, not a reflection of who you are. Submit an invoice for the work you can provide or have already provided to your client. Offer services that help to fulfill your contract. You may choose to work beyond your contractual agreement for a regular or favorite client, but you also can decide against it. It is important to recognize and maintain that line between business and pleasure.

  Of course, with reasonable precautions, and if your client has copies of everything you need, the schedule doesn't need to change much at all.

Retrieving Your Property

  Sometimes you can recover stolen material on your own or with the help of the police. If you put up signs asking for information, you may get it. Perhaps somebody saw something.

  You should also post notices in your neighborhood alerting others of the theft. I put a notice in the building elevator -- and when I found it torn down the next day, I replaced it. I also posted a notice in the buildings I can see through my kitchen window. I put only my phone number on the fliers.

  But don't get your hopes up. The fingerprint lifted at my apartment was my own, and nobody contacted me regarding the theft. In fact, three weeks after the break-in at my apartment, there was a break- in across the hall: again, the thieves climbed the scaffolding (now on the opposite side of the building).

  If your property is labeled, should it ever be discovered, you can prove that it used to be yours. Also, in some states it is required by law that pawn shops send regular reports to police stations for archiving. I searched through the pawn sheets for a month looking for my jewelry (although I was unsuccessful). There are different pawn shops for different items, such as jewelry, electronics, musical instruments, and so on. Also, pawn shop owners are required by law (in most states) to record the social security number of the person selling an item or using an item as collateral for a loan. If your property shows up on a pawn sheet, finding the remainder of your stolen property becomes significantly more probable.

  Meanwhile, if you have insurance, your claim will help the insurance company make contact with your local police. Most insurance forms request the police report number; thus it's important to contact the police even when you have insurance. If an item is eventually recovered by your insurance company, you can "buy it back cheaply." Of course, the sooner you contact your insurance company, the better their chance of recovering your property.

Preventing a Loss

  Insurance is a great idea -- but even better is not losing anything in the first place. What can you do to prevent a loss?

  Itemize your property. Engrave your name or social security number into your property. Resale value may drop when an item is "defaced," but most property depreciates anyway.

  Keep property records. It's the first step in choosing an insurance plan, and it's a good idea. Include brand and model names. Many insurance companies publish books to help facilitate record- keeping.

  Don't flaunt. Keep expensive and portable items (as well as cash) away from places where they can be easily grabbed.

  Use security hardware. Consider buying locks and battery-operated alarms, or a small fireproof combination safe for paperwork, diskettes, and jewelry. Obtain proper security software for your computer, such as screen savers that require passwords and good excellent virus protection software, especially if you share your computer or use the Internet.

  Keep irreplaceable documents in a safe deposit box, such as at a bank. Passports, birth certificates, manuscript originals or backups, original software disks, financial documents and receipts, and ownership titles can all be stored safely outside the home. Store your property records here. Although safe deposit boxes are only accessible when the facility is open, there are seldom other limits on your access. As an alternative, keep important backup copies at a friend's house or with a family member.

  Keep track of your keys. House keys, office keys, safe deposit box keys, and car keys are the obvious ones. Computer passwords, lock combinations, and electronic passkeys also qualify. Know how many copies exist, where they are, and who has access to them. Make spare keys. Don't store written combinations and passwords anywhere that they can be discovered accidentally. If you feel that security is jeopardized, change your locks and passwords. (Note that insurance companies first ask, "Was your door closed and locked?")

  Keep duplicates of everything. You cannot be too meticulous. Don't mail or ship critical papers, like handwritten work, without knowing you could replace them if destroyed. three weeks of work can be photocopied in 15 minutes for $10, wouldn't you do it?) If you work with photographs, protect your negatives from water, heat, and light damage.

  Try to set aside money "for a rainy day." Even with insurance there are deductibles to pay.

  Finally, one theft can lead to another. An apartment that was broken into once is at greater risk for future thefts, mostly because replacement property is more valuable and thieves already know the apartment layout. If you rent, inform your landlord of the theft. Replace broken locks. In my case, the police officer instructed to hammer nails into the windows to prevent them from being forced open again.

Handling Major Business Losses

  If your car is stolen or your paperwork is damaged by water, relatively speaking, recovery is easy. If flood destroys your entire office, though, what do you do? Certainly the loss is traumatic. The idea of "starting all over again" is daunting. To be fair, however, one never truly starts over completely. You have established business contacts, marketable skills, and a resume to prove both. The challenge is to have these at your fingertips -- right now.

  Keep an updated, comprehensive copy of your resume someplace safe. Store portfolios of your work in a protected environment. You may also want to store a list of references, including names, addresses, phone numbers, and dates. The key word here is "updated."

  Recognize that there is -- literally -- less to lose. You may find fresh opportunities more accessible. Rarely after a major loss does one think, "Now's my chance!," but you can think positively and broaden your horizons. If you wanted to learn a new skill, do it now. It's important not to limit yourself at such a crucial time.

  Establish backup resources. Take the time now to find places where you can rent space (such as hotel rooms with long-term rates), equipment (such as at computer rental agencies or colleges), or assistance. The Association's Yellow Pages contains a good list of freelancers with skills similar to yours. Knowing your alternatives helps even with minor losses.

  Finally, and most important, never be afraid to ask for help. In a profession where self- sufficiency is a marketable skill, so is knowing when to ask questions and when to ask for favors.

 

Copyright 2000 Seth A. Maislin
(Available for re-publication.)

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