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While I was working out at my local gym, a thief walked into the locker rooms, broke into my locker and stole my bag.
Then I discovered that my savings were also exhausted.
The nightmare that unfolded has left me baffled and wondering if I can ever trust a gym or bank again.
My smartphone and my bank card were in the stolen backpack. That’s all the thief needed to unlock both my current and savings accounts, taking advantage of Santander’s security loopholes. They then went on an £8,000 spending spree.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, my bank charged me with negligence, initially claiming that the money was lost through my own fault and that I would not receive any compensation as a result.
All this was unimaginable when I finished my training session on Wednesday 24 August around 9.30 pm. I was excited – I had just been offered a new job and I had talked to a colleague about my future.
But when I went to my locker at the Virgin Active gym in Chiswick Park, London, I realized my combination padlock was missing. . . and the compartment was empty.
My first thought was that my new mobile was in the backpack, along with my debit card. My heart sank when I realized that the keys to my flat and my bike lock were also gone.
Charlotte Morgan, whose smartphone and debit card were stolen from her locker at the Virgin Active gym in London’s Chiswick Park
Hoping for an innocent explanation, I went to the front desk.
Two women were already worried at the counter.
One of them said, “Oh no, don’t you?” So she was a victim too – and she had arrived at the gym at the same time as me.
I remembered her as the electronic entry gate was out of order and instead of showing our membership cards we signed a piece of paper as we entered. No employee checked our names to the system, so our thief most likely slipped this way too.
How they got into my locker, however, was a mystery. Maybe they had used a bolt cutter on my padlock. I can’t believe they guessed my combination lock.
“I have to cancel my bank card,” I announced. But how? My phone was stolen. The receptionist at first refused to let me use the gym’s computer and the desk landline because he was concerned about data protection, but reluctantly allowed me to get on Santander’s emergency line.
My colleague showed up and came to my rescue and lent me his phone. I called the hotline and asked to stop all transactions.
Instead, I was guided through a long list of security procedures to prove I was who I claimed to be. The voice on the other end of the line then listed a series of important trades, all made during my gym session.
Each hit me like a bullet. The thief started his business shortly after 8pm at an Apple store in Westfield shopping centre, in West London, and spent nearly £3,000 – including three £850 purchases.
I’ve never bought anything from an Apple Store in my life, but Santander’s automated fraud system was not alerted.
The next transaction was with Apple again, this time shortly before 9pm on Regent Street, for over £1,000 – and they still weren’t ready. The spree continued at Selfridges, where they spent just under £700.
The thief unlocked both her current and savings accounts, taking advantage of Santander’s security loopholes. They then went on to spend £8,000 (stock image)
Here Santander asked the spending habits – by sending an automated text message to my phone.
But this was now in the hands of the criminal. . . which of course confirmed the transaction. By the time I convinced Santander to block my account, the shops had closed for the night. But I was informed that further transactions totaling over £3,000 were still pending.
I only keep a limited amount in my main account linked to my bank card – so how, I asked, could they have spent so much, while I have no overdraft?
That’s when the Santander operator told me the news that the thief had managed to transfer money from my savings account – in chunks of £2,500 – to the checking account before squirting it around London.
No one would say how this was possible.
But I had more pressing problems. I live alone and without my door key I wouldn’t be able to go back to my flat.
I also couldn’t check into a hotel without my bank card. And without my phone, I wouldn’t even be able to call my friends – I didn’t memorize their numbers (who does, these days?).
Ultimately, my only option was to go back to the office where I work as a TV producer and spend the night at my desk frantically searching the Internet to understand what was happening to me.
Her bank charged her with negligence, first insisting that the money was lost through her own fault and that she would not receive any compensation as a result.
The next morning, I returned home exhausted, knowing that my landlord would come by. He gave me a spare key and I got more cut.
Then I walked 50 minutes to my nearest Santander branch (my bike was still locked and I couldn’t use the Tube without cash or my Oyster card).
Over the long Bank Holiday weekend, unable to eat or sleep for fear, I waited for word that my savings would be returned.
When I called the police that night on my colleague’s phone, I was given a crime reference number which I then passed on to Virgin Active executives, who told me the company will not take responsibility for theft.
They claimed it was a coincidence that the security barriers were not active ‘for maintenance’ when I arrived.
Santander’s call handler told Charlotte that the thief managed to transfer money from her savings account to the checking account before splashing it around London (stock image)
The police promised to contact me after a few weeks if they could review the CCTV footage.
Another woman whose property was stolen that night (how many victims are there?) tells me that police have said they cannot investigate “due to a lack of available evidence.”
To enter the locker rooms undetected, the thief must be a woman. The knowledge that another woman is after me and made my life extremely difficult makes me shiver.
But the hardest blow, which nearly broke me, came when a Santander employee told me—quite casually and bluntly, six days after the theft—that I would not be reimbursed.
The theft was my own fault, he said. I must have kept my PIN with my debit card — perhaps written on the card itself, he added.
This was insulting and untrue – and anyway, it still wouldn’t explain how my savings were looted.
In a rage of despair, I poured out my heart on Twitter. The response was astonishing.
Charlotte said she couldn’t believe how much money had been spent on her card while she was at the gym (stock image)
Tens of thousands of people shared my story and many hundreds contacted me. The generosity of some was overwhelming. One person sent me a £50 restaurant gift voucher so I could get a meal (I didn’t need it at the time and sent it back but there were so many lovely gestures).
My local firefighters even promised to free my bike. But the best gift was when I got some answers about how the crime was committed.
A bank security expert (not from Santander) explained to me how the scam probably happened. Once the thief got my debit card, they didn’t need my smartphone anymore – just the SIM card, which can be removed from the side and inserted into another phone.
This bypasses fingerprint security and facial recognition. It is the digital equivalent of an open window in a house. Once in my account, the thief was able to reset the PIN online and then change all my bank security passwords.
It’s shockingly simple. I think the thief could have done it in the taxi from the gym to the first Apple Store. Santander should be aware of these loopholes.
When my story spread on Twitter, the bank changed its mind. My money was returned to me and I received a lengthy call of an apology – although I am not sure what real action Santander will take to ensure this cannot continue to happen. Virgin Active has also assured me that it wants to ‘gain my trust back’.
I have now improved my security measures, locked my sim with a PIN and never kept my debit card in the same bag as my phone.
Frankly, I am no longer confident that even these measures would deter a well-informed thief. After all, this was clearly not the work of an amateur.
And it wasn’t a lone attack either. A spate of gym thefts in London has left countless other women facing the same horrific nightmare. Many of them have contacted me.
It’s hard to put into words how it feels when a system designed to help you turns its back on you. Police, gyms and banks must work together on this.
I am angry, upset and impatient for change.