Before they go to sleep every night, Evan and Michelle Krouss take in all their expensive belongings -- the cellular phone, the radar detector, the camera and anything else that isn't nailed down or glued tight to their cars.
Inside their sprawling rancher in Stevenson, Mrs. Krouss safely tucks her purse away -- she never leaves it on the counter -- and then locks all the windows and doors.
Call them paranoid. They'll be the first to admit it. But after the trouble they went through when their Acura Legend was stolen a month ago, they aren't careless now.
"I live in what is supposed to be a nice, safe, family-oriented, upper-class community, and I'm still terrified," said Mrs. Krouss, 29, a sales manager for a Crofton real estate company. "Someone was on our driveway, breaking into our car while we were sleeping. That means they came up our 100-foot driveway, ignored the motion-sensored lighting in front of the house and drove off.
"It could have been our bedroom window on the ground floor," Mrs. Krouss added. "It was very scary."
It's a common story. In Baltimore County alone, 3,100 cars were reported stolen in the first half of 1994 -- a 27.4 percent increase over the same period last year. In Baltimore City, car thefts were up 51 percent over the same period.
It's an experience that leaves its victims feeling violated, angry, scared, disturbed or disappointed. Not to mention inconvenienced. Just ask the Krousses.
Their troubles began at 4 a.m. on Friday, July 8, when a relative called to tell them their car had been stolen. They were still half asleep and groggy when a police officer called minutes later to ask them to check on the automobile.
They discovered that the car they were leasing, a black Acura with tan leather upholstery, was gone. Only a piece of metal from the door lock was lying on the ground.
"The police officer had pulled someone over for speeding and saw our car drive by at 3 in the morning," said Mr. Krouss, 33, a Pikesville real estate agent. "He figured it had to be stolen at that time of morning. Sure enough, he drove by our neighborhood and found a bunch of material from the glove box and back seat of the car dumped in the street. The old car registration was in there with our old address, so our relatives [who lived at the old address] were called."
Mr. Krouss was devastated. "My office is my car," he said. "I live in there, keep all my equipment for my job in there and take my clients out in there. We lost everything."
More than $4,000 worth of equipment disappeared with the Acura, including a camera, a calculator, two briefcases, prescription sunglasses, golf clubs, shoes and clothes that were headed for the cleaners.
Worse yet, there were credit card slips and a booklet of starter checks.
After daybreak, they quickly made calls to the bank to close their accounts, to the credit card companies to report the missing cards and to the insurance company to report the stolen vehicle.
"We were going away on vacation that Sunday," Mr. Krouss said. "We were supposed to get replacement credit cards on Saturday. We never got them. Do you know how hard it is to go away on vacation without credit cards?"
Returning home on Wednesday, July 13, the Krousses found their troubles were continuing. There was still no word from the police on the car, and trying to rent temporary replacement was almost impossible without credit cards.
Although a credit card company was willing to verify their account, most rental agencies wouldn't part with a car without the plastic in hand. They finally found a rental company that would -- otherwise they would have had to wait until their credit cards came two days later, Mrs. Krouss said.
The car was recovered on July 12, Mr. Krouss said, "but, we didn't get a call from the insurance company until Thursday [July 14] to let us know the car was found."
Recovered cars are not as uncommon as many people think. Baltimore County Police investigators say 82 percent of stolen cars are eventually found, and 55 percent of those are recovered in the city. The Krousses' car was found in Catonsville.
Mr. Krouss took a quick drive out to the Catonsville lot where the car had been towed. The "beautiful car" that he "just loved" was full of "dents and dings."
The ignition was gone. The battery was dead. The phone had been ripped out. The door lock was broken. And there was grease all over the leather seats.
About $1,200 to $1,400 worth of damage, Mr. Krouss said.
Then the bank informed them that their starter checks had come back to haunt them.
Someone had decided to go on a spending spree in Baltimore city Safeways and CVS drug stores, writing seven checks for amounts ranging from $156 to $210. The name "Donna J. Ishnell," a Baltimore address and a Social Security number were typed neatly in the blank space where the Krousses' names and address should have been.
Luckily for the Krousses, their call to the bank had stopped the payout for the checks.