WASHINGTON AND PROVIDENCE, RI — In a split second, a thief can break open the padlock on a health club locker, steal credit cards and identification, and disappear without a trace. Case in point: six club members' lockers were broken into during a rash of robberies two years ago at several Washington health clubs including Bally Total Fitness and 24 Hour Fitness. When police searched the home of the alleged thief, 40-year-old Julie Christine Cardenas, they found bolt cutters, health club membership cards, identification cards, credit cards, cell phones, checkbooks and several sets of keys.
Cardenas, who went on trial this month for two counts of drug possession and three counts of second-degree possession of stolen property, was also charged with forging checks stolen from the health clubs to make more than a dozen purchases for amounts up to $440.
Because of the nature of their business, health clubs can be easy targets for identity theft because they often store a gold mine of private information about their members on their computers, and their members keep their valuables in lockers. If this information is stolen, the subsequent identity theft can inflict significant personal and financial harm on an individual or business, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association. When this type of theft occurs at a health club, the fitness facility can suffer from a loss of revenue from memberships, a disruption in operations, damage to the club's reputation and/or legal ramifications.
Health club robberies have become increasingly common because locker rooms often aren't well supervised, said Officer Greg Grannis, public information officer for the Bellevue Police Department in Bellevue, WA. Clubs can't place security cameras in their locker rooms due to privacy issues. However, they can invest in more tamper-resistant lockers, ask one of their staff members to occasionally walk through the locker rooms to monitor any suspicious activity, and film the parking lot and other areas of the club, he said.
“It comes down to vigilance,” he said. “Clubs have to figure out how to make it as difficult as possible for someone to come in and rip off their clients. If they want to steal something, however, they'll find a way to do it.”
Breaking and Entering
While health club lockers and members' cars can be vulnerable to theft, thieves can also break into fitness facilities and steal valuable membership information. In May, two laptops were stolen from the locked offices of the YMCA of Greater Providence's administrative building in Providence, RI. One of the laptops contained debit and credit card numbers as well as the Social Security numbers and other personal and financial information of 68,000 members.
The laptop also had the names, addresses and allergy and medication information of the children in the Y's day care programs. The Ys affected were the Greater Providence Y, which has 10 branches in Rhode Island and Seekonk, MA, and the Ys in Pawtucket, Smithfield and Woonsocket, RI.
After the theft, the Y contacted the police and discerned what information was on the laptop, which was being used as a test server at the time of the robbery. To help protect its members against identity theft, the Y mailed letters to the affected members and advised them to put a fraud alert on their credit files at credit bureaus and contact their banks and credit card companies immediately. None of the affected members reported that any of their information had been compromised, said Mickey Riendeau, Greater Providence Y spokesperson. The Y has increased both facility and computer security to prevent a future break-in.
As of press time, the stolen laptops had not been recovered, and the case was still under investigation, Riendeau said. Because of the nature of the break-in, the police concluded that the robber most likely was not an employee of the Y.
While this incident was the first time the Y's leased office had been broken into, several laptop robberies had occurred in the area around the office's location during the last few years, and some of the thefts had occurred in the same building as the Y's administrative offices, Riendeau said.
With identity theft as the number one consumer complaint during the last five years, according to the Federal Trade Commission, clubs should have a plan in the event of a theft or break-in, she said.
“Health clubs need to be proactive rather than reactive,” Riendeau said. “We all think it will never happen to us.”
Visit www.fitnessbusiness-pro.com/mag/theft for 10 tips on preventing identity theft.