Laptop Thefts: Starbucks Scandal?

Just whose fault is it if your laptop gets stolen at Starbucks? Do coffee shops (and other similar businesses) have a responsibility to help curb such crimes? If so, how far does that responsibility go?

To kick the topic off, here’s a story by Michael Wilson, for the NY Times: As the Careless Order a Latte, Thieves Grab Something to Go

Starbucks shops are ubiquitous in New York, a respite for tourists and professionals young and old, and while the city’s criminal trends come and go and ebb and flow, there remains a steady march of handbags from those shops in someone else’s hands….

Apparently, Starbucks’ customers are pretty common targets. Starbucks, Wilson notes, pop up “again and again on police blotters.” That makes the iconic coffee chain sound like a pretty dangerous hangout. But Wilson rightly acknowledges that the rate of thefts at Starbucks (of which there are 298 in New York alone) needs to be put into context, and compared to the rate of thefts at other establishments:

Not to pick on the chain, based in Seattle. No one has tallied the number of Starbucks thefts, and purses and bags walk out of any number of restaurants and bars day and night. Grand larcenies — the theft of anything over $1,000, which is almost every purse with a credit card inside — remain the Police Department’s most vexing crime, as preventable as it is commonplace.

The focus on how common such crimes are in all kinds of public and semi-public spaces is right on target. To me, this is all reminiscent of the part in the movie, “Wal-mart: The High Cost of Low Price,” in which the film-makers — incredibly — blame Walmart for thefts, rapes, and murders that happen in the retailer’s parking lots. It’s a crazy accusation, of course: Walmart has nearly 9000 locations. If you looked at the stats for any 9000 parking lots, I’m willing to bet you’d find a fair bit of crime.

But back to coffee shops, and the rate of laptop and purse theft on their premises. What are companies like Starbucks to do in light of this? Clearly it’s not their fault that people are leaving their laptops unattended — I guess except to the extent that they’ve carefully engineered a warm and welcoming environment, one pretty much designed to encourage people to let their guard down. What might the company do, in principle, to reduce the amount of theft on their premises? Vigilant security guards would be one possibility, though that would surely do something to detract from the Starbucks ambiance. Security cameras are another, less intrusive, option. (But then there might be privacy concerns related to constant surveillance: do you really want the Starbucks-Cam watching over your shoulder while you read The Onion?) They could also install laptop locks on the tables in their shops (since most laptops have a universal lock slot). A different tack would be to eliminate free Wi-Fi, which would give people less reason to bring their laptops to Starbucks in the first place. Of course, lots of us like the free Wi-Fi, but if it’s encouraging us to engage in risky behaviours, I can at least see an argument for hitting the ‘off’ switch.

Warning signs are another option: signs could remind unwary customers of the dangers, and recommend that they carry their laptops with them at all times when on the premises. Apparently, one police commander thought that was a good idea:

[The officer] asked one branch to put up a sign warning customers; the manager demurred, saying such a sign required corporate approval.

But what is Starbucks (or any other coffee shop) obligated to do to reduce crime? Or at least, what would it be ethically-very-good of them to do? I don’t see a clear answer, though it’s easy enough to argue that they ought, at least, to grab some of the ‘low-hanging fruit.’ If there are simple and cheap things they can do to make customers safer, those things could arguably be considered obligatory, and besides, such moves might even attract customers, giving them a genuine sense of security, rather than a false one. But laptop theft at Starbucks will never, never be zero, and it’s unreasonable to think that the company has an obligation to drive the on-site crime rate anywhere near that.

9 comments so far

  1. Stacy on

    I think Starbucks is obligated to act as much as any individual is obligated to act. Starbucks is rarely empty. Chances are there are other people around when a theft takes place. And if you’ve been paying any attention at all you can probably recognize when a laptop is being stolen. Yet, I bet a majority of those people don’t say a word. I think ethically we all have an obligation to look out for reach other especially if we happen to witness a crime. Starbucks employees should say something as should Starbucks customers. If customers felt the same ethical obligation there would be less of a need for cameras, security guards, etc.

  2. Jeff Moriarty on

    I find it hard to know where to begin with these cases. Principles fail me, so we might begin with analogies.

    Suppose I came to your house for a dinner party, then broke out my laptop because I found the conversation dull (yes, this is a distant possible world). Suppose I then left my laptop for a minute to steal a beer from your fridge. Would it be reasonable to expect that it would still be there when I got back? I think yes, and I would be pretty upset — maybe at you specifically, my host — if it were gone. I might feel you had a responsibility to ensure that no one stole it.

    But suppose I decided to spend the afternoon on Boston Common. And suppose I left my laptop for a minute there to buy a beer at a local watering hole. (Suppose I am a fast drinker, so it just takes a couple of minutes — exactly as long as it took me to get a beer from your fridge.) Would it be reasonable to expect that it would still be there when I got back in this case? I doubt it. And I don’t think I’d have anyone to get upset with if my laptop weren’t there anymore.

    So one way of putting the question is: is Starbucks more like your house or is it more like the Boston Common? (Perhaps a complicating factor is that we could make the Common more like a person’s house, by filling it with security guards watching everyone’s property.) If it’s more like the Common, then the people whose property is stolen there have little cause for complaint. If it’s more like your house, then they do.

    Ramble complete.

    • Chris MacDonald on


      Thanks, that’s a useful approach!

      We might offer other analogies to fill in the big gap between a friend’s house, on one hand, and an open public space on the other. How about a party at the home of a casual acquaintance? Or a university library? Is there any relevant difference between a library and a coffee shop? I speculate that people have different intuitions about the for-profit setting of a coffee shop, but I’m just guessing.


  3. […] But this post is not about my tie or the risks of reaching across the bar or the beverages of other patrons to grab my two Splendas and dairy canisters; it’s about Chris MacDonald’s blog post on thieves pinching your laptop at Starbucks. […]

  4. Laura on

    I personally don’t think Starbucks should be held responsible if their customers’ belongings are stolen. However, if it is common for a store to experience theft I think they should make sure they have several security cameras installed.

  5. Codie Leigh Perez on

    I was at a table watching a video podcast, with headphones on, when my laptop was stolen from me. I filed a police report then contacted Starbuck’s security devision so that the tapes would not be erased. But conveniently, we later found out that the taped “accidentally” ended up on a 3 day cycle instead of the standard 30 day, so when the investigators finally contacted Starbucks the tapes showing the perpetrator were gone.

    Even though my laptop cost $1800, Starbucks was so kind, they sent me a whopping $30. Wow, thanks!

    In my case, what is Starbuck’s responsibility? Surely it would be to make a copy of the security tapes THE VERY DAY the crime is reported. Then they should work with police to catch the person(S) involved so as to prevent more robberies.

    • tim on

      Codie… now you know better. 😉 good luck. Each of us has the responsibility for our own wits about our own selves whether common area or private. Your bitterness and sarcasm reflects directly of your character which is a bit on the arrogant side. 😉 Now you know. all the best.

      • Pat on

        This seems like such a no-brainer. If I were to leave my wallet and/or cash on a Starbuck’s table when I went to the serving counter, bathroom, visit a friend at another table….or whatever, and I were to return and find it gone…. Simple conclusion….stupid me. Same goes when an individual leaves something of value unattended in a public place. Starbuck’s is not your best friend’s living room, after all. And even if you were in your best friend’s house during a party and someone snatched something of yours of value, which was unattended….what do people expect? Call 9-1-1 and hold everyone there until all can be interrogated…? BE REAL people!

  6. HM on

    My laptop was stolen in Starbucks , and the thief was Starbucks employee. Now, do you think in this case Starbucks is responsible? Apparently, they don’t like me to say this in public because of their reputations.

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