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
First Response to a Theft
What do you do when you find your front door is
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
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
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
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
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
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
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-
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
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
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
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
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.