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How To Catch a Laptop Thief? 485

Posted by samzenpus
from the dirty-rat dept.
First time accepted submitter otaku244 writes "I spent a day in Vancouver this week while working in Seattle. While I enjoyed the area, some Vancouver citizen decided to enjoy my Macbook Pro. Unfortunately, I didn't discover this until I was already back at my Seattle hotel. Needless to say, I am quite miffed at the whole experience. Fortunately, I have LogMeIn installed on that machine. I provided the IP address to the VPD, but they say that laws don't allow warrants solely on the physical address tied to an IP. It sounds like the silver bullet is to take a picture of the person using the laptop. The question becomes, how do I convince the guy to run a script that will take a picture of him and smtp it to me? I promise to post pics of the guy if this gets pulled off successfully!"
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How To Catch a Laptop Thief?

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  • Hate to say it... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Richard_at_work (517087) <.moc.liamg. .ta. .ecirpdrahcir.> on Sunday October 16, 2011 @12:09PM (#37731474)

    But the best moment for you to take action is long gone - when you had your laptop in your possession.

    Let this be a lesson readers, do something to secure your possessions now, install something to allow for ease of tracking and identification now, not as an afterthought when it gets nicked.

    To the op, can't you just log in with LogMeIn and set a script running which takes a photo every minute or so?

    • Yep. Whenever my MacBook is with me outside of the the apartment, it is either in in the shoulderbag (which looks NOTHING like a laptop case), actually under my fingers as I'm typing, or, in the case of out of town events, locked in the room safe when I am not using it.

      • Caveat emptor - hotel safes are not necessarily safe. Many have very simple default passwords so that the hotel management can get in if you forget your password. http://gizmodo.com/5837561/can-000000-secretly-open-your-hotel-safe [gizmodo.com]
        • by plover (150551) *

          I wish I remember the brand of in-room safe they used at the last hotel I stayed at. The safe displayed something like "Eror", so we called the desk who sent a security guy to come open it. He had to plug a cable into a port hidden behind the logo in the door, and he had to set some kind of device on the top of the safe. He then entered some stuff on a Palm Pilot on the other end of the cables, and the safe was opened and reset. There was no visible opening on the top of the safe so I assume it's induct

    • Agreed - I installed Prey months ago and my Mac never leaves my house....

    • Download Backblaze and use their Wifi location device. If it and the IP address correspond then they have more than "just an IP address" they have what block it's located in and the IP address which will probably correspond.

      • You could probably skip that whole step and just jump to the easiest possible solution.

        1) Open a web browser.
        2) type in "Facebook.com"

        What do you want to bet that the thief remained logged in?

        If that doesn't work check the web history and see where they've been. Then go through site by site and see if any of them are still logged in, then get the name.

        If the name and the general address vs WiFi location are one and the same then you've got a slamdunk case for the police to at least just knock on the door

  • First, I don't get it .. if you have something like logmein why can't you log in and start Facetime or something like that .. before you do it .. test it with a friend cause you probably wont get many chances.

    Anyway .. if that fails, tell him you're a chick? Most likely the thief is male, so you could entice him to do it that way. You have his email address of something? how would you communicate with him?

    Btw, rather than hand him over to the cops .. just ask for the laptop back and tell him you're keeping

    • Also if you are starting facetime make sure u have it recording .. either with software or aiming a camera at the screen

  • Lazy police (Score:5, Insightful)

    by www.sorehands.com (142825) on Sunday October 16, 2011 @12:16PM (#37731546) Homepage

    It sounds like the police just don't want to bother. If it was the MPAA, RIAA, or Apple asking, they would have a SWAT team there in under 5 minutes.

    The IP address with location may not be sufficient for a conviction, but it does support probably cause. Why not see if you can go to the location, and then h

    Don't you have sshd enabled on your mac with an appropriate 50 character password? Just use ssh to remotely do it.

    Doesn't LogMeIn allow you to remotely control the machine? Use (ssh is preferred) that to set up a script that takes the picture, make several copies in several locations, copies the file via scp, and ftp to a couple of different locations. Then wait for him to log into different web sites so you can have his user ids, then have the computer take pictures.

  • Prey project (Score:5, Interesting)

    by feranick (858651) on Sunday October 16, 2011 @12:18PM (#37731556)
    ... I know it's too late for you now. But, you should consider prey project. It does now what you are asking.
    • It's worth mentioning that Apple's own iCloud also has a subset of Prey's features like geolocation, remote locking/wiping and sending a message. Doesn't support taking a picture or using the webcam though.

    • by KiloByte (825081)

      If he can access the computer remotely, can install what he wants. His only problem is that he doesn't know how to access the camera without the GUI, which is not a problem for many of us.

      The computer being a Mac means my Linux answer won't be helpful, but I bet there is something of the kind on Mac as well. Like, let's say, installing Prey.

    • by theNAM666 (179776)

      That's http://preyproject.com/ [preyproject.com] !

  • Really? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by SuricouRaven (1897204) on Sunday October 16, 2011 @12:19PM (#37731566)
    "I provided the IP address to the VPD, but they say that laws don't allow warrants solely on the physical address tied to an IP."

    Translation: You're a nobody, and we're not going to spend our precious resources tracking down and prosecuting a small-time thief. Come back when you've got a friend in politics or the media.

    If an IP address alone is enough evidence to file civil suit against someone for copyright infringement, and under the new proposals enough to have them disconnected without so much as a trial, I find it hard to believe that it can't be enough to be at least reasonable suspicion and thus grounds for a warrant.
    • Come back when you've got a friend in politics or the media.

      Alternative: get a letter from a lawyer. That'll wake the police up a bit.

    • Re:Really? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by otaku244 (1804244) on Sunday October 16, 2011 @12:47PM (#37731806)
      Sorry for burring this update here, but I don't know how to update the article above.
      I actually had my business partner on the hunt and we tracked it down to 4th District Vancouver. We also found out that the non-emergency VPD number takes you do a civilian call center. These guys seemed be misinformed about their own laws. So when we connected directly with 4th District, we got a call back from a detective who pulled the case. This happened on Friday. I had already submitted to Slashdot the night before.
      Anyone know who to update the submission?
    • Translation: You're a nobody, and we're not going to spend our precious resources tracking down and prosecuting a small-time thief. Come back when you've got a friend in politics or the media.

      so true. the presence of a police force definitely discourages crime, but once a crime has occurred, as an individual, you are pretty much on your own nowadays unless you have friends in high places or make it into the agenda of some politician. the police exist to provide and environment conducive to corporate profits.

      even if he could run a script and take a picture, he will still have a hard time getting the police to care. your best bet is to use logmein to wipe your personal data and then brick (to the

  • Rig the computer remotely to blow the lithium battery up in the jerk's face!!!

    • by alphatel (1450715) *

      Rig the computer remotely to blow the lithium battery up in the jerk's face!!!

      It's a Macbook, the battery will explode eventually. But if you want to speed things along..." [arstechnica.com]

  • The other side (Score:3, Interesting)

    by bozonian (1138651) on Sunday October 16, 2011 @12:20PM (#37731574)
    Upstate New York: last weekend two Sheriff's investigators showed up at my house. They were looking for a stolen laptop and the "GPS on the laptop" had phoned home and told them the laptop was at my house. They just asked if we had recently bought a laptop blah blah blah. They left when it became obvious we knew nothing about it. Two days later 4 rednecks showed up at the house, my wife was home alone. They were looking for their "grandma's laptop that had family pictures on it and the GPS said it was at this house". They went away unsatisfied of course. I called the Sheriff back and told him what happened, and that MacBooks don't have GPS, that the GeoLocation was probably done off my WiFi Mac Address. Needless to say, I run DD-WRT on my multiple, Bridge Repeater routers and I changed the wireless MAC address immediately to break the link between my routers and my location in whatever database this link was stored.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Why didn't you just return the laptop? Clearly the GPS says you have it.

    • by gd2shoe (747932)

      Uhm, I think you're either leaving something out of your description, or you're confused. MAC addresses aren't transmitted across the Internet. They stop at the first router they come to. Meaning in most sane situations only your DSL modem's MAC is transmitted, and it never leaves your ISP.

      It is orders of magnitude more likely that this was a precision flaw in the database. The laptop is at an IP address (not yours) that has a GPS associated with it that indicates the general location, but isn't suffici

      • by i.r.id10t (595143)

        I imagine though that the only way to locate things (GPS wise) would be for a smart phone w/ location services to report back to teh DB that "gee, I was at this location and I noticed an access point with the MAC of xxxxxxx... nearby"

  • by feranick (858651)
    If you have sharing enabled, you might be able to connect via SSH and install a script that activates the camera...
  • Did you have the latest Lion update installed? When you install it and setup iCloud there is now a Find My iPhone for Macs, so they can report your location. I assume they use a WiFi geolocation database (since no Macs have 3G), but it would have given you and the police a good idea where the computer was. I believe it also lets you remotely lock the computer.
    • it would have given you and the police a good idea where the computer was

      what then? they spend the day going around the neighborhood interviewing people. unless someone breaks down and admits to the crime, you are SOL. that is of course in a fairy dream land where the police would actually put any effort at all into the problem.

      • by MBCook (132727)

        I was right, there is a remote lock. This is also a remote wipe, so at least you can get your sensitive data off it.

        As for finding it, the little dot on the map is over my bedroom, so it's maybe 25 feet of from the real location. If you believe it's accurate, there are essentially only two apartments to check. If you go with the whole radius, there are maybe 8 apartments. It wouldn't be too hard to find, especially since I can make it play a sound, a quite noticeable beeping. Stand outside the apartment yo

        • As for finding it, the little dot on the map is over my bedroom, so it's maybe 25 feet of from the real location.

          that's by coincidence. you don't get that accuracy from a wifi database. worse, it can be misleading. people see a definite dot on a map when in reality it could be someone within 200 feet of that dot.

          If you believe it's accurate, there are essentially only two apartments to check.

          anyway, even if it had a GPS lock, it's +/- 5 meters theoretical. in practice it can be off by quite a lot (100 feet or more), so that isn't even enough to say for sure.

  • by medcalf (68293) on Sunday October 16, 2011 @12:27PM (#37731642) Homepage
    Tell the police that you connected to the machine to try to track him down and found that he had downloaded child porn with it. Then, when they bust him and take the computer, you can file a claim with them. Kind of the nuclear option, but I bet it would work.
    • by hedwards (940851)

      When you consider jail time and court costs from file false paperwork with the police, you'd be better off just buying a new one and forgetting about the old computer.

  • You need to have a plan before the laptop is stolen, not after. I use a commercial solution that works directly with police departments to recover laptops. They don't just use IP addresses; they get a picture of the perp as well.
    • The Prey Project [preyproject.com] is a free solution that probably does everything your commercial solution does, and more, except for the "working directly with police departments", which, in most parts of the US today, I would not trust anyway.
  • Not saying I ever would, but if I ever did steal a Macbook pro, the first thing I would do is remove the HDD. Failing the option of replacing the HDD, I would wipe it and reinstall. I have bought and sold many a computer and to anyone I have ever sold a machine to, I always recommend the same: WIPE THE HDD -- it's just good practice.

    People who fail to do this simple thing deserve what they get. They are trusting an unknown -- an computer with an OS and unknown software on it. One should know as much as

    • by eharvill (991859)
      I would almost think this would be the only option, unless the owner of the laptop doesn't have a password. I can't imagine the average laptop thief would know how to crack a password anyway, but would pass it off/sell it to someone that was somewhat computer savvy.
  • Vancouver, BC or Vancouver, WA? Knowing which country this happened in might help.

  • It was on Blue Bloods just the other night. Offer to buy it back.

  • Vancouver police are still looking for the Stanley cup rioters so just finding some one who took 1 laptop likely is under that on the list of things to do.

  • by lymond01 (314120) on Sunday October 16, 2011 @12:50PM (#37731830)

    Just had a cop come by the university to discuss this. In California at least, photos like that are not admissible as evidence. They may allow the police to get your laptop back, but if you press charges those photos, keystrokes, etc are going to be thrown out before they ever see the judge.

    Don't you have Find My Mac or something like that on MacBooks? I thought logmein was more of a VPN thing.

    • by laffer1 (701823)

      I think Find My Mac is a new iCloud feature and he might not have set that up yet.

    • Re:California Law (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Colonel Korn (1258968) on Sunday October 16, 2011 @01:16PM (#37732084)

      Just had a cop come by the university to discuss this. In California at least, photos like that are not admissible as evidence. They may allow the police to get your laptop back, but if you press charges those photos, keystrokes, etc are going to be thrown out before they ever see the judge.

      Don't you have Find My Mac or something like that on MacBooks? I thought logmein was more of a VPN thing.

      From experience with friends who've tracked down their laptops and mobile phones, throughout the US the police won't do anything in any circumstance. Even if you track down the identity of the person with your phone/laptop and get pictures of the thief using it, the police will tell you they won't do anything about it. Recovery comes from taking those pictures and then filing a civil suit, and that's not easy.

      However, if you have any influence with the police or know someone who does, the picture changes dramatically. With a policeman friend you can probably get it back in a few minutes by driving over to the thief's house with the policeman in uniform to make you more persuasive. Also, it's not that the police aren't allowed to help you once you've got strong evidence, it's that they choose not to do so.

      In summary, in my experience photos and IP logs and such will actually let you win in court (the thief won't even have a lawyer, so you don't need to worry about evidence being challenged as long as the judge is sympathetic) but won't get the police to do anything for you.

      • by i.r.id10t (595143)

        Heck, I had a gun taken and pawned by someone w/o permission - they gave me the pawn ticket to get it back. Reported it as stolen, provided the PD w/ a copy of their drivers license and SSN card, no results. Did get the gun back from the pawn shop... but barely.

  • Hope you have changed the location and dates in your plea for help so that the thief reading Slashdot would not be tipped off.
  • I just encrypt my hard drive. If a thief nicks my laptop, all he's going to get is a piece of (old) hardware and a disk full of seemingly
    random numbers. While it's annoying, you don't need to put resources into tracking the bastard, just get on
    with it and buy a new machine, which you would anyway.

    Hardware is cheap. Data is your time, work and money, so protect it with encryption and keep backups.

  • When you have Lion, make an iCloud account and use Back To My Mac and Find My Mac to find your computer. Also, make sure to encrypt your computer and you can lock or wipe it remotely. Sure it's not perfect but it will help a lot with recovery or at least make sure you don't lose important data to others.

    If you leave it in a hotel or so, there are those locks you can tether around a desk or so, some upper scale hotels have them at the front desk. It will help against unwanted removal of your device.

  • Can logmein allow you to watch but without touching without his knowledge?

    You know he'll log in to facebook at some point...

  • Cheapo Netbooks (Score:4, Insightful)

    by ironjaw33 (1645357) on Sunday October 16, 2011 @01:03PM (#37731986)

    Incidents like these are one good reason I use a cheap netbook when on travel. Not only are they light and get substantial battery life, but if it breaks or gets stolen, I'm only out $300.

    I also find that I rarely get much actual work done when on travel, so I don't have the need for a more substantial laptop. I guess if you've really got the need to travel with a full sized laptop, you could mod the case to make it look scuffed and dated and hence not worth stealing. Either that, or get a ThinkPad -- even the latest versions look 10 years old.

  • File for a court order that allows search and seizure by law enforcement. Once you have that, the LogMeIn data is a usable piece, hopefully. If it is, case closed.

  • I provided the IP address to the VPD, but they say that laws don't allow warrants solely on the physical address tied to an IP."

    Just tell the VPD that you have the latest unannounced Apple uber-puter that you lost. That'll get the police moving right-quick!

  • by Ian.Waring (591380) on Sunday October 16, 2011 @01:17PM (#37732096) Homepage
    I seem to recall an Apple Store employee managing to connect using BacktoMac to her stolen Mac and remotely taking a picture. Only gotcha was the count down to the pic being taken appearing on the screen in front of the thief. She did recognise the guy as someone who came with friends to a party at her house, and duly got her machine back. At the time, needed MobileMe to work...
  • while find-wipe-lock tech has been around for a long time, apple is making it standard issue. it will be interesting to see how law enforcement handles this. where for the most part iphone thefts have gone unpoliced, you are now going to have almost every user reporting the theft with enough evidence to find the perp. will law enforcement respond with an army of high-tech detectives to chase down these thieves? not likely.

    i don't understand why apple / at&t / verizon don't just band together to squash t

  • So, for your NEXT laptop, try this:

    http://www.preyproject.com/ [preyproject.com]

    It's an open source tracker (with the obvious caveats that come with tracking software), but the nice thing is, you can point it to a server you control, rather theirs if you so choose. My MBP was stolen from my car (wife didn't know my bag was in the back, parked the car at a hotel lot. One busted window later....), and a very similar one (missing the extended power cord that I still had no less) showed up on craigslist a couple days later with

  • If I got it correctly, LogMeIn is some kind of remote-desktop application. If this is the case, just fire up the browser and check facebook, chances are he logged in as himself and left the session open. You may also be able to upload the browser history somewhere (e.g. dropbox) than retrieve it and analyse it.
  • What laptop thief doesn't put tape over the webcam until wiping the drive? It seems like every week I see a new thief caught by having his picture taken; blocking that would be the first thing I'd do.
  • Violence (Score:3, Interesting)

    by ewhenn (647989) on Sunday October 16, 2011 @01:50PM (#37732360)
    Contrary to popular belief, violence is the solution, If you are sure you know who it is, go to town on them. Give me a baseball bat and 5 minutes with any cocksucker that steals my shit, and he'll wish he didn't. Sure you might have my laptop, but I just knocked out all of your teeth and broke your legs. Fair trade.
    • Re:Violence (Score:5, Funny)

      by kaizokuace (1082079) on Sunday October 16, 2011 @02:46PM (#37732668)

      smashing his face in whilst yelling "IM A PC MUTHAFUCKA!"

    • by DarkOx (621550)

      Most States don't give you the legal freedom to do violence to someone after the fact over property. Texas used to I think, I am not aware of anywhere else. I agree if someone tries to take property from I am going to fight, and make them regret they ever even thought about mugging me. Going after someone though over something like a stolen laptop is stupid because you WILL get prosecuted over it and it will cost you way more than a new laptop would.

      Someone appropriated my GPS, I left in unlocked(stupid)

      • Heh. I would offered to buy it, and when checking it out, said "I'm taking this and not paying you" to see if he would call the cops. With ownership material in hand, and cops in tow brought by the kid, that would be pretty god damn funny. He'd be caught in a dead cold lie, which would be adequate grounds for arrest, because he wouldn't be allowed at that point to change his story to something else. That is... of course... if you wanted to arrange that outcome. Still, you should have probably told his paren

  • Posting Pics? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by CohibaVancouver (864662) on Sunday October 16, 2011 @03:58PM (#37733118)

    I promise to post pics of the guy if this get's[sic] pulled off successfully!"

    Be VERY careful posting pics... If the pics you post aren't those of the thief, you could find yourself on the wrong end of a very nasty lawsuit.

Nobody's gonna believe that computers are intelligent until they start coming in late and lying about it.

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