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The Paper Chase

Imagine the scene: a quiet Sunday morning, an almost taxi-free street. A door to a brownstone opens, and a man in a bathrobe tiptoes outside, looking for his newspaper. The telltale blue bag of the Sunday New York Times is not on the stoop. The man frowns, pouts, and flouts back inside, slamming the door. The newspaper thief has struck again.

If life were a movie, then the stolen newspaper story would be a minor melodrama, complete with irate shareholders, confused doormen, frustrated porters, and beleaguered board members. It would be a whodunit that might even frustrate Sherlock Holmes – or at least Colonel Mustard of the board game “Clue.” It may not be a major issue for most boards, but it can seem like one if it happens to you. Of all the quality-of-life issues that plague apartment dwellers, perhaps none is more aggravating than the missing newspaper, a repeat occurrence that torments shareholders and unit-owners from the most modest co-op in Brooklyn to the toniest address in Park Avenue.

While the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Daily News will credit the account of the shareholder who misses delivery of a newspaper, getting your money back on the nicked newsprint is not the point. If it’s a repeat offense, the Wall Street Journal recommends that the subscriber take other steps to receive his or her paper.

“Unfortunately, we have no control if someone is trying to take your paper,” a spokeswoman for the Journal says. She suggests that those who are missing their paper either request it be mailed to their office, or ask that an anti-theft sticker be put on the clear plastic bag. “I’m not sure what the sticker says,” the spokeswoman laughs, “but it says something like, ‘This newspaper is intended only for the person on the label.’ It lets the person taking the paper know that [this paper] doesn’t belong to him.’ We try to do everything in our power to make sure you get your paper.”

So what kind of ability does a board have, if any, to stop a newspaper thief? That’s the $64,000 question, say managing agents. Some even have answers.

Joseph F. Bulfamante, director of management at Lawrence Properties, offers what he considers a viable solution. In a building where doormen are the first line of defense, “the doorman can hold the paper at the front desk, and either the super can deliver the newspaper to each individual person, or the person can pick up the paper with the doorman on his way out of the building.” For non-doorman buildings, Bulfamante recommends installing a letter flap inside the vestibule where the papers can be safely delivered into a box, picked up by the super, and then distributed to the tenant-shareholders or unit-owners.

Then, too, there is the more aggressive route: installing a hidden camera and monitoring what goes on in the lobby after the newspapers are delivered on each floor. That’s what the board of a 34-unit condominium on City Island did, after repeated disappearances of the home-delivered newspapers forced the board members to deal directly with the problem through surveillance. Maura Mandrano, the board secretary of the SailMaker Condominium, says for less than $100, the board installed a small camera and monitoring system. “The camera looks like an energy light fixture,” notes Mandrano.

The next time the newspaper thief struck, the board went to the videotape. The culprit? A neighbor who left for the gym at 5:30 every morning. The unit-owner was so embarrassed that he moved out shortly thereafter, recalls Mandrano. Now the building has a sign in the lobby that reads, “Smile! You’re on Candid Camera!” So far, there have been no more newspaper thefts.

Other solutions offered by managing agents and resident managers include occasionally sending a letter to all the shareholders/unit-owners, or posting a note in the lobby explaining that the newspapers delivered to the building are the sole property of the subscriber, adding: “Removal is theft.”

But whatever steps board members choose to take – the locked box, the door-to-door delivery, the piling up of the newspapers in a special room off the lobby, the note on the bulletin board – always remember: there is just no accounting for human behavior. Gerard J. Picaso, president of Gerard J. Picaso Inc., cites a case in point. Years ago, he managed an Upper East Side co-op and remembers talking to a woman whose newspaper always went missing on Tuesday mornings. “I said to her, ‘Why don’t you get up when the paper is delivered, put a string around it, attach that to a bell, and run it through your door? That way it’ll ring when the thief picks it up.’ She thought that was a great idea.

“A week or two went by and I never heard a thing from her,” continues the manager. “Then I saw her at the building. I said, ‘Did you ever find out who the newspaper thief was?’ She said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me? Who was it?’ She said, ‘It was very unfortunate because when the string was pulled, I ran to the door and opened it. And it was Mr. A——. And he was naked. I was so embarrassed. I didn’t have the nerve to call you.’”

Picaso looked into the matter further and discovered that the newspaper thief would wake up 15 minutes before the papers were distributed to the front doors and then “stroll around the building, naked, looking for papers. He wouldn’t take it from the same place each time.” The manager wrote the offending shareholder a stern letter and the thievery soon stopped. If only all the world’s problems could be solved as easily.

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