What Happens When Your Laptop Gets Stolen

Dell Inspiron E1705

Dell Inspiron E1705

Have you ever thought about what would happen if you came home from an afternoon walk and someone had run through your house and stolen your computer?

Neither had I.

This past Saturday, my family returned to our house to find just that situation. We had 2 Dell E1705′s, and then, suddenly, someone else had them.

We had taken our son for a walk around the neighborhood, about a 30 minute trip. When we were walking up the driveway, we saw the neighbor’s dog loose wandering around, and their back gate open. I called the dog and put him back into their backyard. Then we walked into our house.

My wife went in before me and walked into the living room and shouted, “Our laptops are gone!”

It was about 5pm, we called the local police, who showed up very quickly. It dawned on me that I had Google Latitude activated on mine, so I checked my iPhone and sure enough, it showed me about 3 streets over. After explaining the general idea behind it, the local cops made a dash for the geo-location, but apparently that was just the last place my laptop connected to wi-fi long enough to update.

So now I don’t know what to do. I run to my friend’s house to see if it reconnects to Google Latitude. While I was sitting there, it dawns on me that I also use Dropbox. I use Dropbox to sync files between home(aka the stolen laptop) and work. By this time it’s about 6pm, and I upload a file via the Dropbox website, and notice that it sync’s to my stolen laptop!

This is about where I started Twittering away. I ask for people to add me to their Google Latitude and alert me if they see my location (stolen laptop’s location) move at all. Friends I haven’t seen or talked to in years suddenly pop up and lend a hand.

I shoot into work and get my work laptop to continue monitoring my stolen laptop.

Ah-ha. I now know it’s connected to the Internet, and Dropbox is kind enough to give me the IP address of where it is also. I get terribly exited to tell the police that I know that my stolen computer is at 76.3.112.214.

Uh, oh, I see… so you don’t speak geek? I slow down long enough to explain why me knowing the IP address is such good news. The officer I talk to doesn’t seem terribly impressed. I ask them to call Embarq and see if they will release the physical address of that IP address.

A few hours later I call back and they tell me they haven’t had a chance to call yet because the officer who took the call is out on another call. So I wait a while longer, and finally unable to sit still any longer, I decide to drive down to the police station.

Before I head over there, I see my neighbors lights on (the one whose dog was loose) so I decide to tell them what’s happening. She is shocked, and tells me her husband is out at some event that night.

At the police station the front door is locked, so I have to press a buzzer. A voice comes on and tells me that there is nobody available to talk to me, but he’ll call someone. I was asked to wait a few minutes.

A few minutes later, about 11:15pm an officer walks through the door and I go through giving him a quick version and ask if they’ve contacted Embarq yet? He says they did, but the special law enforcement hotline was closed. They only accept calls Monday through Friday between 9-5.

I am dumbstruck. I turn around and drive home, dejected, my mind spinning.

When I get home the neighbor is in my driveway, with her big dog. She tells me that she called her husband to tell him what happened, and he had some interesting information.

I find out that as he was packing up his car earlier that afternoon, he saw 3 young boys walking up to my door. One boy looked like he was in about 4th or 5th grade, and two older boys who looked like they were in middle school. The younger one broke away and went over to my neighbor and said he was helping his cousin selling stuff for the middle school PTA.

During the discussion, my neighbor got the name of the young boy, and his cousin.

As we stood in the driveway just before midnight, my other neighbor said he also noticed 2 boys walking along side of my house shortly before we arrived home that afternoon. Nothing like a B&E to bring neighbors together :-)

At this point we start to figure that they probably went around to the back slider door, looked in, saw our two laptops sitting on the side tables in our family room, and then when they couldn’t open the sliding door, went around to the front door, then just ran in and grabbed them.

I sit and watch Dropbox until I notice at just after midnight, my file is no longer syncing with my stolen computer. I worry that the crook has started reformatting it. The IP address no longer responds to ping requests.

I finally fall asleep about 2am.

I am woken up about 6:30 by my son. The first thing I do is check Dropbox. My computer is still not syncing.

I start looking up information on the web about Embarq. It turns out that they were just bought by CenturyTel. So I start calling through CenturyTel to see if there is some special law enforcement number to track the IP address. I do find another number eventually, but it has the same hours – ugh.

About 7am I call the officer who took the original call and tell her about the 3 kids and the other information I have. I’m still hoping that they will connect to a wireless connection and open Firefox (and my homepage) so Google Latitude can pinpoint them, but no luck.

About 11am on Sunday morning, my stolen laptop starts syncing again! It’s at a new IP address now, 76.3.113.66. It stays online for the next 12 hours or so. Although my laptop stops syncing with Dropbox, the IP address continues to respond to my ping requests and traceroute.

My wife puts out some of the early details on our subdivision website forum on Sunday afternoon.

Upon waking up Monday morning, I tell work that I won’t be coming in. I decide to drive down to the police station to give them a print out of the ip adress and times it was online and off as well as the right numbers to call at CenturyTel’s legal department.

As I walk out to my truck, the neighbor across the street stops me, she’s on her cell phone. I walk over and she tells me that her friend on the next street over saw my wife’s post in the neighborhood forum and saw three boys on bikes fitting the description, 2 of them carrying laptops on Saturday afternoon! I get her contact info and now I’m really excited to get this to the cops.

The office I’m talking to says he’ll give it to the initial responding officer for me. I say, “no, no, she won’t be in until Wednesday, this needs immediate attention, we have a limited window to watch these thieves.” He agrees and says he’ll attach it to the case file and tells me that a detective may grab it. I am boiling inside, but remain calm and give him a quick primer on IP addresses and how I’ve been tracking and watching them.

I go home and we eat a quick breakfast. Now we decide to head over to the middle school and talk with an assistant principal over there about what we know, and to let her be aware of who we were looking for. We gave her names, some distinguishable characteristics (one of the older boys has a red wrist cast) and the fact that the neighbor had given the little one a check for the fund raiser. I was feeling like this might just get solved by dinner time without ever using the whole IP thing.

About lunchtime on Monday the detective calls me and has me walk through the whole “how do you know the IP address” story again so she can get it on the subpoena so that CenturyTel will give us the street address. That got taken care of at the county courthouse and she called me at the end of the day to let me know that CenturyTel said that it can take up to 5 days for them to get us the physical address. What? I didn’t even know what to say.

We lock our door and go for a ride around the neighborhood, we see a couple people out and ask if they saw anything, nobody did. Then we ask about the 2 names we have, one woman says “hold on”, and runs across the street and brings over a middle school girl who “knows everyone”. She offers up one possible last name for one of the boys. This could be a big break!

We stop at one other house that has a high school age son and offers us some old school yearbooks to look through. I take them over to my neighbor who bought the PTA stuff, but he says no one looks familiar.

As I go to bed on Monday, my computer hasn’t synced a file in about 24 hours. I feel like we let it slip away.

Tuesday morning the detective calls me first thing and gets all my contacts and such, she is going to talk to everyone and really see what’s what.

I head off to work fairly distracted. I ask some of my friends in the media to call CenturyTel and ask about the 5 day wait. AnnMarie Sartor, CenturyTel’s Public Information Officer never returns any of the calls.

About 5pm I call the detective to see if there was any progress. She says that actually there was quite a bit of progress, and she has a couple more hours of work ahead of her. She says that a lot of things are happening, then has to hang up quickly as another call comes in.

It’s 10pm now, my computer is still offline. My phone rang twice tonight, and both times I jumped up like a rocket to answer it – but both times were just normal calls.

Hopefully this post can get updated tomorrow with some good news.

Wednesday’s Update 11:59am:

Just heard back from the detective. The leads last night weren’t as successful as she hoped. The parents of one of the kids said they were with the kid on Saturday, the other said the only computer they have is a desktop. I asked if she had asked them if they use Embark for their internet connection, she hadn’t thought to ask that, so she was going to get back in touch with them.

UPDATE 3:30pm

Just received a call from Holly Spring’s Detective Minschew. She sounded awfully perky, but I tried to remain calm. Then she hit me with, “we found them!”.

She said she figured out who one of the boys was (the one with a red cast on his wrist) and went to talk to the kid’s parents. After school today the parents called her and asked her to come back. Apparently, the kid had stashed it under the neighbors bed or something. Well, it didn’t take long to get the location of #2 out of him either.

So Detective Minschew took #1 with her, and said #2 was on it’s way back to the police station. Both of them should be back at my house this afternoon.

Thanks to everyone who helped me with all this drama, I really appreciate it, probably more than you will ever know.

I’m sure there be another update or two before this is finally put to bed.

In the mean time, go protect you own laptop in case it ever gets stolen.

Stolen Laptop System Information

Stolen Laptop System Information

Funny Update:

When I got my laptop back I noticed a couple of things, one was that the kid who stole it had taken the time to update the System Information, which was kinda surprising.

The second was that he spent a lot of time on MySpace and surfing porn.


Final Update

Today was my turn. I was subpoenaed to attend the court date where the two kids who stole the laptops would get their wrists slapped.

My wife and I arrived right at 2pm, worried we would miss something, that wasn’t the case at all. Nothing was happening when we walked in.

The juvenile court room was empty except for the parties involved in my case.

Neither boy was with their parents, each lived with their grandparents.

The first boy who pleaded guilty to felony breaking and entering (among other stuff) was Derice Utley. Apparently between the time they caught him stealing my stuff and today, he had also broken into another house and tried to steal a motorcycle. He is in 8th grade.

The judge ended up sending him home provided he wear an electronic ankle bracelet.

The second “yute” was Michael Roane, he also pleaded guilty to felony breaking and entering.

Both of the kids will have to reappear in court in a few weeks to find out what their ultimate penalty will be, but since they’re juveniles, it will probably just be community service.

I hope these kids can turn it around, but if I had to place a bet, I think they may be slipping away.

[UPDATE]

I just read an amazing story about a man who saved his stolen laptop using an open-source product from the Prey Project that looks pretty awesome and Twitter. I’ve installed it on my laptops just in case this ever happens again.

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Comments

  1. This sounds like an episode of the Keystone Cops! Will be pulling for you and hoping law enforcement can get their IP-act together. Hang in there!

  2. Thanks RL, hanging in as ordered :-)

  3. Awesome sleuthing! You deserve a Scooby snack! Congrats, Phil, glad to hear they’ve been recovered :)

  4. Phil,
    That’s great news! Good for you for taking matters into your own hands. I live in the next neighborhood over, and a neighbor was recently ribbing me about locking my doors when I go for a run. I just sent him your story!
    One question; on the CenturyTel page you linked to, why didn’t you call the media contact for “former Embarq service areas”, Vernon Fraley? He has a 919 number, might have been more responsive. There is still no excuse for Ms. Sartor to not return any calls.

  5. Phil,
    Happy endings are hard to come by…this is fantastic! I’m also going to run thru your post again and learn more about the services you synced w/ … rigging your laptop as insurance against this kind of thing w/ those services is great advice.
    Really pleased to hear hangin tough paid off on this one. Way to stay with it.
    Enjoy your victory.
    Curious…the kids are minors, I realize…any sense of whether parents will be seizing this opportunity to outline a “punishment” that doubles as a life lesson here? Community service, etc?
    Just wondering.
    My mom used to make me write essays. She gave them back to me when I became an adult. They’re classic.
    Guess these days, you could make them write a blog post!
    LOL.
    Best,
    -Renee

  6. Daniel Sterling says:

    Ah, your laptops were what we call a “soft target”. It’s unfortunate that these kids behaved this way, but thieving is more often than not a crime of opportunity rather than a planned affair. The lesson here is to remove the temptation — harden up your security so the thieves move on to a softer target.

    Valuables visible from the street (or the window) with obvious signs no-one is home, plus an unlocked door — this is a classic crime of opportunity against a soft target. Of course I’m not excusing the kids’ behavior in any way, but this is the reason houses have locks: it’s not so much to keep people out (as houses are easily broken into), but rather it’s to harden the security to reduce the temptation casual thieves might have.

    I’m glad you got your laptops back and I’m also glad the parents did the right thing by calling the detective back.

  7. Dennis Walsh says:

    Phil,
    That is great news. Great detective work on your part. Coming up with the different ways to track the laptops under such a stressful and emotional situation is pure genius. This made me realize how technology has not made it to the local police level of law enforcement. It is very scary that you had to educate the police on so many different levels of tech stuff. I would be that is the case at most local police stations around the country, not just in your small town. I guess CenturyTel could care less about helping out with law enforcement, so much for corporate responsibility. I am glad that those parents called the cops to have them come back and didn’t try to cover it up to save “johnny’s” butt.
    After you have some time to recover from this and can look at it from all angles, I think you should write an article on the different things people can do to help secure their computers. Not sure what version of Dropbox you are using, but the free version they offer would have accomplished the same thing. There are so many free products out there that could also be used to track, logmein.com is one that comes to mind, as well as paid products like the the Lojack for laptops. I guess maybe you need to write two articles, one for the average home user that is less technical and another article for the geeks that has more geek speak in it. If you do write any articles, please let me know, I would be interested in reading them.
    Great idea on the neighborhood web site. Sounds like you have some great neighbors.
    Good job and glad to hear you got them both back. So, are they calling you Columbo and have you started wearing a trench coat and smoking cigarettes.
    I hope those kids get a “scared straight” experience so they learn a lesson without too high a price.

  8. Rob McAlister says:

    Lesson for the kids: Don’t steal laptops from a geek.

    Lesson for Phil: Move to Durham. It’s more secure. No, just kidding. I guess I should stop leaving the doors unlocked. It’s a bad habit I have that drives my wife crazy. But I never really think that people will steal my stuff.

  9. At least living in Durham, you’re not lulled into the false sense of security to the point you would ever go for a walk without locking your doors first. Woohoo, Bull City!

  10. Phil, do you know if these geotagging services are available for mac? I would love to rig my computer up with them, because Lord knows I would die if my laptop was ever stolen.

  11. @Molly Buckley

    Yeah, Dropbox is available for mac, and of course Google Latitude is a web app, but also there are some other cool things available for the mac, some that use the built-in camera to snap photos of the laptop stealer.

  12. Awesome!! Thanks, Phil!

  13. Susana Valdovinos says:

    OMG! Derice Utley he is My Ex Boyfriend And dis is not hes frist time.doing something lik this.Gosh Derice.This is very shocking to me.And im glad they caught them because wat he did is stupid.bhut wat eva.and yerp he always on my space and if not facebook.walkin stuff.

  14. WOW – I’m so glad you stayed on top of this, Phil. And, like you, I hope that they can turn their lives around.

  15. Claudio says:

    Leave it to the geeks :) i suppose thats their strong points, dont mess with them! Good following up work by you though!

  16. Jaime Brown says:

    Whew! Good thing you got your laptop back and I hope these minors will learn their lesson.

  17. Someone stole my laptop too about 5 hours ago and still no respond from the police officer about the update news. So can we block or lock the laptop automatically? Im sure the stealer are now browsing my files :( what if they’re using it without wireless connected, can we block it somehow?

    • You can’t do much after the fact ;-(

      If it was a crime of opportunity (like mine) then the robber probably just has it stashed or is re-formatting the hard drive. In a case like that, you are basically out of luck.

      In my case, it was a combination of talking to everyone and good work by the detective, so don’t give up!

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