Thursday, August 09, 2007

Colorado Library Bandit

Library shelves, that are just as likely to be filled with the latest DVDs these days as with books, have become tempting targets for thieves who see them as easy targets. In fact, one such dimwit has just been nabbed in Colorado , but only after he managed to walk away with several thousand items that he hoped to sell at online sites such as Craiglist.

Thomas Pilaar, 33, obtained seven library cards from the Denver Public Library by using different names, CBS4 investigator Brian Maass learned.

The library says Pilaar then checked out as many as 300 items on each card, selling many of them via the Web site

A woman who recently bought books from Pilaar through Craigslist noticed the library identification stamps and alerted authorities.

"It appears his intent was to sell 2,100 (items) from the Denver Library collection," said Jackson, who estimated the losses at about $35,000.

Denver is hardly alone. Librarians from Aurora, Arapahoe County and Douglas County say they too have been victimized in recent months by Pilaar. Arapahoe County library administrators said Pilaar obtained three different library cards and checked out between 250 and 300 items.

James Larue, Douglas County's head librarian, said Pilaar checked out more than 300 items from two Douglas County libraries, mostly DVDs and pricey coffee table books. He says the library system's losses stand at $11,000.
"Just like any other system, it's possible to abuse it. And this guy, if he is who he claims to be, shows up at some of the libraries and developed very quickly a pattern of just not acting like an ordinary patron and checking out way too many DVDs."

The Denver District Attorney's Office is investigating the library thefts and is considering filing criminal charges against Pilaar.
What went wrong here? I can easily understand how someone could use a false identity to obtain a library card. After all, thousands of illegal aliens are wandering around this country with false Social Security cards and driver's licenses, so how hard can it be to obtain a fake library card? But don't libraries have some kind of limit in place that would prohibit a new patron from checking out 300 items at a time, especially when most of the items are DVDs? Now that almost all library systems track everything via computer systems, how could they so easily be ripped off? Why aren't there better controls in place to protect the public's investment in its libraries?

I have, at times, had as many as twelve or thirteen items checked out of the Harris County library system and I figured that I might be approaching the limit of what they would let me have out at one time. In fact, I was hoping that was the case because I find it so irritating to walk up to near-empty DVD shelves just as one patron walks away with a dozen DVDs in her hands. How many movies can one person watch in seven days?

Perhaps it's time for libraries to put some common sense limitations on just how many items one person is allowed to cart off without returning some of the loot. Hey, I'm just saying...


  1. At my library you can't check out more than 10 dvds and 30 items total at one time. I took a double take when I saw 300 items on each card. I don't understand why they don't have a limit. I've never come close to maxing out on my card, of course I only check out things for legitimate purposes. Not for selling them on Craigslist. I'm glad someone called it in after seeing the library stickers.

  2. When I was growing up the limits were certainly much stricter! I'm a little surprised that's changed. Good on that woman for alerting authorities when she could have just kept what she bought.

  3. Matt, it does seem as if the libraries that were burned brought this on themselves to a large degree by not using the controls that a computer system gives them. I can't imagine why any library would have a policy of not limiting checked out items to a reasonable level of 10-12. Students doing research could always ask for an exception or use the card of a parent or sibling to get what they need.

  4. Heather, the woman who questioned the legitimacy of the books on Craiglist at least stopped the bleeding for the libraries. It's a shame that so many items are probably gone forever. I hope they can get enough in restitution from this guy to cover most of the lost.

  5. Wow. I can't believe there aren't stricter limitations on what you can check out. That's nuts! I'm so glad that someone on the buying end alerted the authorities--at least someone was on the ball here!

  6. I suspect, Gentle Reader, that they are going to be placing a limit on the number of items allowed out to one patron pretty soon, if they haven't already done so. It's hard to believe that they could run a system that way, isn't it?

  7. Hmmm... Obviously a lot of the fault lies with a library that allows so many books to be checked out at once and fails to use any safeguards concerning future use of a card when books aren't returned. What a shame. Another problem that exists, and is harder to monitor, concerns those who razor blade certain pages, leaving the damaged book behind.

    I imagine librarians at better organized libraries are cringing at the association. Our local library has a relatively short check out period (two weeks; I know I've read of several with a longer period) and monitors the number of books, etc. on the same topic, limiting that as well. So if I'm checking out books on quilting, I have to limit the number I borrow at one time. When my books are late, an occasional situation, I receive notices promptly.

  8. Jenclair, what are they cutting from the books? Illustrations from the old ones or what?

    My system is pretty good about making sure that I know as soon as one of my books goes overdue. They send me an email warning me about three days ahead of time and then follow-up with one if I don't make it back to the library in time.

    I don't know that they track books by type, but that is a really good idea so that someone doesn't shut everyone else out of a subject for an extended period of time.

    But allowing 300 books per card, I have to agree is just ludicrous and has to be a major embarrassment to someone in the Colorado library system. I can easily imagine that someone may lose a job over something like this, in fact.

  9. I'm the guy from Douglas County. Recently, we moved to a self-checkout system, and looked at all kinds of restrictions that stopped people from just checking out their books and going. A lot of those restrictions made sense when a staff member was managing the interaction. (For instance, there's a small but old fine to take care of...) But most of them didn't.

    So we eliminated the whole idea of setting some arbitrary limit on the number of items you can check out. As I've written elsewhere, there are lots of problems in America. People using the library too much really isn't one of them. We check out over 5.5 MILLION items a year, and you know how many people have ripped us off this way?


    And guess what? We caught him.

    The rest of our patrons love the fact that they can check out 40 pictures books for each of their 4 kids, and not get penalized while waiting for the books they returned to get checked in before they can check out something new.

    So why punish everybody because one would-be criminal mastermind abused the system?

  10. Thanks for your comments, James. I appreciate them.

    I agree that some restrictions have to be dropped in a "self-serve" system or that the system just wouldn't work. But putting a limit on the number of items that a single patron can check out doesn't seem to me to be the kind of restriction that would cause the system to bog down.

    As a library patron, I would appreciate the fact that more items were on the shelf when I was looking for them more than the fact that some of my fellow patrons had 200 items sitting at home. Realistically, there is just no reason for patrons to have more than a dozen or so items at one time, especially when so many of them are slow to return the items.

    Your system may have been burned by only one thief, but that one thief hit you with a huge loss in monetary terms and in the number of items lost. I just can't see that you have justified the risk by the fact that you were only hit one time.

    As for catching him, the article makes it sound as if that was pure chance and that he was caught by someone reporting his eBay activity. Was he caught by anything that the library did on its own?