Laptop Thieves Punk'd! Six Amazing Recovery Stories

Pilfered in Portlandia

In October 2010, somebody smashed the front window of Nancy Wiebelhaus's home in Portland, Oregon, and ran off with three laptops: two MacBooks and a MacBook Pro.

One of the MacBooks was running GadgetTrak. "I bought it because the same thing happened a couple of years ago when we had three laptops stolen. These kinds of property crimes are really, really common in my neighborhood," says Wiebelhaus, an eighth-grade language arts teacher.

Once activated, GadgetTrak begins tracking location and network information whenever the stolen laptop connects to the Internet. It also captures photos of the person using the device, and sends them to the computer's owner.

amazing laptop recoveries
The GadgetTrak software pinpointed the location of Wiebelhaus's stolen laptop on a map, and captured video of the thief using the laptop's front-facing camera. Image: GadgetTrak
"Over the course of a week or two, I got three videos of people who had my laptop," says Wiebelhaus. GadgetTrak also sent her an IP address that the suspects were using to go online.

She forwarded the information to Portland Police Department, which subpoenaed the Internet service provider. The ISP identified the customer who had been assigned that particular IP address.

The detective on the case immediately recognized the name of the customer. The suspect was already in jail, having been arrested recently on another crime.

The defendant, Tracy Miller, 48, ended up pleading "no contest" to the burglary. He was sentence to an additional 31 months in prison.

"While the software helped in catching the person who broke into my house, in the end I never did get my laptops back," says Wiebelhaus.

Miller reportedly told police that he had traded one of the MacBooks to his dealer for drugs. The whereabouts of the other two laptops is unknown.

Video From Stolen Laptop

'This Guy Has My MacBook'

When Oakland, California, resident Joshua Kaufman arrived home on March 21, 2011, he found his apartment burglarized and his MacBook stolen. He reported the crime to Oakland Police Department the same day.

Kaufman's laptop was running Hidden, a Mac-recovery app that captures spy photos of the thief (and sometimes of friends and family, too), screenshots of computing activities, and location information. With Hidden’s help, Kaufman immediately began amassing a dossier of photos, screenshots, and network and location information about his missing Mac.

amazing laptop recovery stories
Picture snapped by the laptop camera as the suspect sleeps. Image: Joshua Kaufman
The pictures and screens chronicle a scruffy-looking guy's adventures with Kaufman's laptop. In one shot, the man is sleeping on a sofa; in another, he's sitting up in bed (with a naked torso), staring at the screen; in a third, he's driving while using the MacBook.

The police investigation, however, was going nowhere. One detective told Kaufman the cops were simply too busy to deal with his case.

On April 25, Kaufman gave the OPD additional evidence that he had collected via the Hidden software. (Hidden requires that users file a police report and supply evidence to police themselves). Still, no progress. He later sent two e-mail queries to the investigator on the case, asking if there was any progress. Crickets.

On May 27, a frustrated but undaunted Kaufman created a Tumblr blog, "This Guy Has My MacBook," designed to prod the police into action. It featured photos and screen activity of the aforementioned Scruffy Guy, including a shot of someone deleting Kaufman's MacBook user account.

laptop recovery stories
Picture snapped by the laptop camera as the suspect uses the device in the car. Image: Joshua Kaufman
"The Tumblr blog didn’t receive much attention until I tweeted about it on the morning of Tuesday, May 31. Within a few hours, it was tweeted and liked thousands of times," Kaufman wrote on his blog.

What happened next speaks to the viral power of social networks--and their ability to thoroughly embarrass public officials.

That same afternoon, Kaufman received a call from an Oakland police officer, who said that she had been contacted by ABC's Good Morning America about Kaufman's case. The OPD would follow up on the investigation immediately, she said.

Within hours, police had arrested the guy with the laptop: a 27-year-old limo driver from the adjacent city of Berkeley. They had used evidence that Kaufman had collected with Hidden, including the limo driver’s Gmail address, which pointed to his employer.

"The officers recovered the stolen MacBook that evening from the limo driver’s home, and returned it to its rightful owner the next day.

Kaufman doesn't think that the limo driver stole his laptop, but rather that he bought it cheap off the street. The case is still under investigation.

Kaufman's vigilante quest was successful, but the makers of LoJack security software warn against this brand of do-it-yourself justice.

Laptop theft "is often more than a petty crime, and can lead to encounters with very serious operations and dangerous criminals," says Lyle Singular, Absolute Software's VP of recovery services.

Is Kaufman worried?

"I'm somewhat concerned about my personal safety since starting the blog. It's entirely possible that the man or others representing him may try to harm me, but I'm not going to stop going outside or living my life," writes Kaufman to PCWorld via e-mail.

"All I can do is be vigilant, and look out for myself as much as possible," he adds.

Fool Me Twice, Shame on Me

In late 2010, burglars broke into Nathan Skogen's Orlando, Florida, apartment and stole his laptop, which he never recovered. When Skogen bought a new Toshiba portable, he made sure that it came with LoJack for Laptops.

"They had broken in once; who's to say they weren't going to break in again?" he tells PCWorld.

Sure enough, they did. In February 2011, thieves hit Skogen's residence a second time. Among the items taken: one Toshiba laptop.

After filing a report with the Orlando Police Department, Nathan contacted Absolute Software, which identified his laptop's location. Police then recovered the PC and contacted Skogan right away.

Here’s how Absolute handles the process, according to company representative Brittany Bevacqua:

“Once the owner files a police report, the Absolute Theft Recovery Team takes over from there. In essence, the Team collects information and does all of the paperwork needed to accelerate the criminal investigation process. The information is then provided to local investigating officers so that it can be easily used as evidence in their efforts to obtain court orders, search warrants and other resources they need to solve the crime and recover stolen laptops."

"The detective called me and said he's got my computer, and to come pick it up," says Skogen, a salesman for an audio-visual service provider.

The entire incident--from theft to recovery--spanned only two weeks.

Unfortunately, the Toshiba's hard disk had been wiped clean. "All my music was gone; all my files were gone. They wiped out everything. But the LoJack software stayed on there," Skogan says.

Police didn't make any arrests in the case. "I wish I knew who had stolen it," says Skogan, “but I’m just happy to get my computer back.”

In his opinion, theft-recovery software is worth it. "People can leave their computers anywhere," Skogan says. "The way life is now, everybody's on the go. You can set your laptop down in an airport and someone can snatch it up."

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