Computers & Mobile
How Tracking Down My Stolen Computer Triggered a Drug Bust

This is a true story. The names have been changed because, well, a guy ended up getting charged with a felony, something he’s probably not thrilled about. Call me cautious.

Have you ever had something stolen? Your heart sinks, your mind races, and you become increasingly paranoid about the vulnerability of your personal property. I know because this is a picture of my coworker’s (let’s call him Steve) rental car, a Chevy Impala, after lunch at Slow’s Bar-B-Q in Detroit (amazing food, don’t park on a side street), the Monday after Maker Faire Detriot. There was nothing significant in the front of the car to entice thieves to break in, but we both had computers in backpacks in the trunk. One quick jab from a screwdriver unlocked the car, allowing the thief to pop the trunk and liberate the bags.

If you’re in Detroit, don’t park here.

We didn’t see the hole at first, so we both thought we were crazy when we found the trunk empty at the hotel. We texted the rest of our team, who were on their way to the airport, and retraced our steps. When were the bags last seen? Who had access to the car? As I said, your mind races. Steve and I drove to the Henry Ford Museum, where the car had been most of the day, and parked in the same spot to see if it was in view of a video camera. The car was visible from two. After reporting this to Henry Ford Security and asking them to review the tapes for that day, we started examining the trunk for any telltale marks. That’s when we noticed the puncture under the driver’s door handle. That would have made noise. Noise we would have heard from the tent. Now what? Steve and I were planning to see Batman at the Henry Ford’s IMAX theater at 9:40pm. Reluctantly, at around 8pm, we headed back to Slow’s, a 25 minute drive. The trip was filled with talk about what was in the bags, and how screwed we were. “Screwed” was probably the most polite word uttered. Steve’s ThinkPad was locked and encrypted. My Macbook Pro was in hibernation and was wide open, unless the theif reset it. Even then, my harddrive was not encrypted. Fortunately, I don’t save history, usernames, or passwords.

At Slow’s, we didn’t see any clues. I snapped a few pics, largely because I watch a lot of spy movies and I didn’t want to feel entirely helpless. So now what? Find a police station. The nearest station was just a few miles away in downtown Detroit. We pulled into the parking lot at 8:30pm, just over an hour until Batman. At the station, which must have been at least 95°, we gave our reports to an Officer.

What was in the bags? Where were you? What time did you notice them missing? We gave all the details we knew. Then he asked “Was there an iPad or any way to track your computers?” I’d completely forgotten about this. Steve had an iPad. There was hope. Right then it clicked that I subscribe to an online backup service. Just like the set of lock-picks that I keep in my car, I’d completely forgotten about it until it was needed. Everything on my computer was backed up. My personal files, photos, even my to-do list was saved to the cloud. I breathed a sigh of relief and logged onto the system from my phone. That’s when I noticed the little “Locate My Computer” button. Too good to be true?

The first time I clicked the button, it showed the computer’s last position in the hotel. Evidently, the good folks at Backblaze incorporate Skyhook Wireless’ wi-fi positioning database or something similar since my 2006 Macbook Pro doesn’t have a GPS. The criminal hadn’t connected my computer to the internet yet so it was reporting the last known location. Steve was going to attempt to use iCloud’s “Find My iPad” when we got back to the hotel. The Officer said to call if we had updates. While very nice, he didn’t sound overly hopeful. Clearly, the officers in Detroit had more important things to do like catch murderers, rapists, and other criminals than find our missing electronics. I can’t say I blame them. At 9:20pm, Steve and I hopped back in the car, clinging to our shred of electronic tracking hope, and raced toward Batman. We made it just in time to get drinks and see the credits start. It was the perfect end to a long, decidely imperfect day.

When I woke up the next morning, I checked the location service. No dice. Steve attempted to use “Find My iPad” with no luck. Assuming the thief knew better than to use it, he left them a plea to return his hard drive, then remotely wiped the device.

We went to the Henry Ford to load the truck with the items that made up the Maker Shed at Maker Faire Detroit. Talk still seemed to naturally drift back to our missing items. We finished loading the truck and went our separate ways: Steve to the hotel to nap before his morning flight back to California, I on my road trip home.

Why hello!

Once home, I decided to check again to see if the thief had connected my computer to wi-fi. To my surprise and relief, I was greeted with this map. I immediately called Detroit’s finest who told me that, unless I have an exact address, they can’t do anything. My mind went into overdrive on how to acquire a physical address. Google StreetView to the rescue!

According to StreetView, my computer is in the middle of the parking lot of Jay’s Flower Shop & Wholesale on Mack Ave, Detroit. Since it’s using WiFi to resolve the location, I assume it’s coming from one of the houses near by. Unfortunately, I don’t have anything else to go on, only the IP address and a log telling me that my computer hasn’t changed IP addresses since it first phoned home.

Now, in case you haven’t yet noticed, anyone can do what I’m doing here. Also, when I first started using the Backblaze backup service I didn’t know all this was possible. In fact, until my computer was stolen, I had no idea it even had tracking. Then, call it what you will — divine intervention, luck, coincidence, or serendipity — it struck me that since my computer is constantly backing up files, the thief might have backed up something I can use to get a physical address.  I searched all the files that had changed since the machine was stolen.


JPG files titled Yukon? Those aren’t my files.  I wonder what they could be?

It’s a GMC Yukon, mid-90s from the look of it. The pictures are this truck from different angles, including one out in front of a house. This one is my favorite.

This house look familiar? It’s visible from the first Google StreetView picture.

According to Google, the pictures were taken from the driveway of 10602 Mack Avenue in Detroit. About 150 – 200 feet from where Backblaze says my computer is. Not only that, looking at the pictures, I noticed that one of the photos has a “For Sale” sign on the Yukon. What do you do when you want to sell something? Take pictures then post them to Craigslist. The photos were uploaded to my computer on July 31 from 4:54pm to 4:57pm. The Craigslist ad went live at 5:10pm. It’s a reasonable assumption that the thief used my computer to make the ad.

Thanks for viewing? Thanks for posting!

Now not only do I have the address, I had his phone number. I left a voicemail with this information for the detective assigned to the case. According to the dispatcher, the officer has a court case today and he’ll call me as soon as possible.

UPDATE #1 (Friday, August 3rd 2012)
O’Reilly (MAKE’s parent company) IT says that someone is trying to log into my company email account from a Comcast IP address in Maryland. I hope my data isn’t floating around somewhere on the internet.

UPDATE #2 (Friday, August 3rd 2012)
I just got off the phone with the officer assigned to the case. It turns out that he’s a homicide detective who specializes in shootings. He got the case because the Detroit Police Department is understaffed. He’s booked today with court cases but wants me to give a statement tomorrow. He’ll use that information to get a warrant to search the house. I feel a little bad about this because I hate to bother an officer who specializes in shootings with something as petty as finding my computer. He assures me it’s not a big deal and since I was so nice on the phone, he’s willing to help. Someone give this guy a raise!

UPDATE #3 (Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012)
No calls from the detective this weekend. I’ll try to give him a call early this week. My computer shifted IP addresses briefly today making me think that all hope was lost but it’s now back to its original IP and location. I *think* the person took it to a coffee shop up the road.

UPDATE #4 (Monday, Aug. 6, 2012)
Due to a tragic shooting on the Princess Riverboat over the weekend, the detective won’t be rescuing my computer anytime soon. I guess I’ll keep tracking and hope for the best.

UPDATE #5 (Thursday, Aug. 9, 2012)
The detective called while I was eating dinner. He said that the riverboat shooting is wrapping up and that he’ll call me Saturday to get a statement, then a search warrant. Fortunately, I had been working on this post so I asked if I could email it to him in its entirety. He agreed and said he would call if he needed any more information. His plan is to put a team together and attempt to get the computer back on Tuesday (Aug. 16).

UPDATE #6 (Saturday, Aug. 11, 2012)
I just got an email from the detective:

I’m still laughing :)  Very well written.  The information you’ve provided coupled with your investigative conclusions easily provides probable cause to believe the stolen computer is contained within 10602 Mack Ave.  I will prepare a Search Warrant this weekend and execute it on Tuesday (Special Operations is on leave Sunday and Monday).  Hopefully, I can bring her back home …

UPDATE #7 (Monday, Aug. 13, 2012)
I just got a call from the detective asking if my computer changed position, because he has it! According to the detective, he assembled a team, and search warrant in hand, knocked on the door of the house. Receiving no answer, they turned on sirens and lights and announced their intention to enter — which they then did, with the aid of a Halligan bar and door ram. Once in, the house was swept and declared clear. Well, except for the drugs. A search of the house, “designed for narcotics distribution,” yielded “multiple, large jars of suspected Marijuana, multiple individually packaged vials of suspected Marijuana and multiple knotted baggies of suspected Marijuana.” My computer was located in an upstairs bedroom next to a mattress. Conveniently, the thief not only left two Michigan driver’s licenses near the narcotics, he also left four Wayne County Jail bands displaying his picture and birthdate. A Michigan Department of Corrections Officer determined the guy was on probation for “Possession with Intent to Deliver Narcotics (PWID).” His probation is now being revoked and a Not-In-Custody Felony Warrant is being issued. While the crook is still on the loose, the officer assures me that two arrest teams (one made up of United States Deputy Marshalls) are after him and there’s no chance of escape.

In the detective’s words, “As property crimes go, this was interesting.  How often do you search for stolen electronics and catch a dope man unawares?  Especially one who is kind enough to identify himself.

I’ve had a few more chats with the detective since then. He’s a great guy and I can’t thank him enough for all he did. I owe him many beers. I’m hugely impressed by not only his actions but the actions of the entire Detroit Police Department. In my opinion, Detroit is a safer place knowing that people like this are on the job. Thank you Detroit PD!

Sadly, none of Steve’s items were found, nor were any of the other items in my backpack. My computer, while safe, is not yet in my hands. I have to sign it out personally or have a notarized letter releasing it to someone else. I have a high school friend in Detroit who might be willing to help.

Lessons Learned:

  • Be mindful about security and what would happen if your data fell into the wrong hands. Very mindful.
  • Install a remote backup system (I like Backblaze).
  • Take lots of pictures in case you want to make a post later.
  • Take pictures of all your stuff before you go on a trip (just in case).
  • Get a car alarm.
  • Renting an American car in Detroit doesn’t grant you immunity from having your stuff stolen.
  • Don’t park on side streets in Detroit!
  • Don’t keep important items in your car.
  • Be really nice to police officers. They have a very hard job.
  • Batman in IMAX is amazing.

98 thoughts on “How Tracking Down My Stolen Computer Triggered a Drug Bust

    1. I think it’s normal in Detroit for SWAT to be there when serving warrants. I’ve seen it on Animal Planet when Michigan Humane Society serves a warrant for animal cruelty, SWAT is there with them.

  1. So, let me get this straight. You don’t log off your computer when you put it away? Or if you don’t log out, you don’t have it set to require a password when it wakes up or comes out of the screen saver?

    1. I had it in hibernate mode and didn’t have it set to require a password when it came out of hibernation. It did require a password upon reset though.

      1. A Windows password takes all of about 2 minutes to break with a Linux boot disk. Plus, if security is set too high on the PC, this almost guarantees non-recovery of stolen PC.

        1. Hello Russ,
          My situation is very diffrent and is, at best, a shot in the dark, as far as getting it back. But I wanna try.. It is a stone age Compaq. I got sick and had to go to the hospital, then was kept, unnecessarily in a nursing home for 2 years. Relitives have my computer and most of my belongings, and they are playing hard ball retuning my things. I was told the laptop crashed and it was ‘donated’ to the computer repare shop they took it to, so that is who they donated it to. That whole story sounded fishy to me. What do you think? I do believe I registered the computer with the manufacturer. Is there any way anyone can detect if it is ever turned on? There was a state investigation and this is what they told him. I’d love to find a way to show the computer is up and running. I would not mind having it back, but this could lead to me reclaiming the bulk of my keepsakes and belongings. Many of my things have been sold, and they have used the money. I have over a decade of genealogy on my hard drive. There are hard copies but they have those too. Many of my belongings are being used in their homes as if they own them. They are mine. One step at a time. Do you have any idea if Compaq would be able to help me. I am not at all computer savy. Any tips, hints, or advice? I feel desperate here, but I don’t want them to see me sweat. Thank you. Barbara

  2. Its so sad that you cant park you car on the street anymore without real fear of losing the contents. Even if there is nothing to steal repairing the lock is going to cost a few bills.

  3. I work for a company that makes software to track and recover stolen computers – We’ve recovery over 24,000. This story is very common – Very often drugs or other stolen materials are recovered at the same time.

    1. LoJack for Laptops, by Absolute Software, Tracks, Manages & Secure’s your devices. Computrace is the commercial version. With over 25,000 devices recovered you should look into it and reccomend it to your friend who lost his ThinkPad.

    1. Thieves are not known for how bright they are. Clever in many small ways, but usually they don’t think through the consequences of their actions.

  4. Lessons you missed:

    – Set your computer to require a password when waking up from sleep

    I’d be supremely upset if someone stole my MacBook, but at least I’d *know* that they’re not going through my personal information, reading my email, or looking at my family pictures.

    1. I encrypted the heck out of my new computer. The whole thing made me quite paranoid about the security of my data!

    2. Actually, because he DIDN’T encrypt his hard drive and left it open, he was able to recover his property. If the criminal steals something, and figures out he can’t use it, he will get rid of it. Since this one was usable, the idiot who stole it began using it. Remember, his buddies machine WAS encrypted… and he didn’t get it back.

      I think and automatic cloud backup service would be a good idea… but making it idiot proof will probably make sure it is discarded.

    1. Feel free to use it on the Backblaze Blog! Without your software, none of this would have been possible. You guys rock! Thank you!

  5. So, you did most of the detective work for the DPD, and they only recovered your stuff? I like these stories (they’re very interesting), but I’m always thinking about the fact that had you not done most of the important work, you’d never gotten anything back.

    1. A valid point, but there’s not a lot that the DPD could do to track it. They didn’t have access to his accounts to check the location of his device, so they can’t do that part. They really did all they can. At least they didn’t tell him to go retrieve it himself :P

    2. I think the DPD has more imporant things to worry about than finding my stolen laptop. Like stabbings, shooting, murderings, etc ;) I was glad to help. It made me feel like I could do something rather than just waiting around and accepting defeat.

  6. I live in the Detroit area and I’m happy to retrieve your laptop and send it to you. You can contact me at the the email address I associated with this comment.

    1. I appreciate the offer but I have a friend that lives up there who was able to get it back. I’ll hopefully have it this weekend! (Watch for the update.)

  7. Sucks that the dude who almost definitely didn’t steal your computer (I’ll bet $1000 he bought it from the thief) will be getting revoked and going to jail for the victimless crime of selling weed.

    1. A. Based on the evidence in the article about leaving drivers licenses and Jail wrist-bands, the guy easily could have been stupid enough to keep the stolen item, but you’re right, we don’t know.
      B. That much weed, you know when something being sold is hot. Buying stolen merchandise, let alone on parole, is also a violation.
      C. That much weed and in that area, and the use of SWAT, chances are it wasn’t a victim-less operation anyways.

      Doesn’t sound like we are talking about your average buddy-buddy slinging a few sacks to friends. That said, weed is mostly harmless : )

      1. Although I have absolutely no use for thieves or those who knowingly purchase stolen hard goods from thieves, Michigan has Medical Marijuana Laws. Weed is LEGAL in Michigan, similar to California/Colorado.

    2. yeah, you dont usually see people dealin weed and breaking into cars. different skill sets. the drug war rolls on. the thief possibly traded stolen ipad for weed, which is particularly funny.

      its nice that swat didnt:
      a) break into the wrong house (due to your amature detective work).
      b) shoot someone innocent in a raid (why do you need semi-auto assault weapons for a THEFT?) google Aiyana Jones, a 7 yo girl shot and killed in detroit by swat.

      its cool that you got your 5 year old ipad back and nobody got hurt. i hope future victims of theft continue to correctly identify the house containing their computers in the future. sorry detroit sucks so much, i’ve even heard of people that leave cars unlocked so they dont get broken windows…

  8. first rule of parking in any city is to never, ever leave important things in the car. i learned that once in toronto – luckily i only lost an mp3 player.

    did you place the items in the trunk before arrival or after? my experience has been that someone is always watching.

    sucks that that was your experience with our city! happy to hear that you got it back + that our PD seems to have redeemed things a bit. :)

    1. Mod that up. If people are watching you, than moving valuables from the passenger compartment to the trunk of your car at your destination is security theatre. In fact it informs a potential thief that your car has valuables.

    2. We had our bags in the trunk well before we parked for dinner. We didn’t do anything that would have tipped off a watching thief (that I’m aware of!) There was an older GPS unit in the front of the car that they didn’t even touch!

      Oh, and regarding the Detroit PD – They are a top notch team in my book! I have nothing bad to say about them.

  9. You actually got it back BECAUSE you didn’t require a password. The thief could then use it and in the process give you the information you needed to recover it.

  10. #1: Write the detectives superiors with glowing commendations all the way up to the mayor and governor. Do it. Do it now.

    #2: Arrange to send from a local distributor to the precinct house cookies, pizza, flowers etc.

    #3: Write the local Detroit newspaper and congratulate Detroit-ians for having good people like the detective on staff.

    1. The guy was just doing what Detroit expects of him, the glowing praises seem a bit over-the-top. Situations like these could easily cause people to rob the house themselves rather than wait days for the police to get their act together.

  11. If your high school friend doesn’t work out, I’d be more than happy to help. I’ll be in Detroit at the end of september for a baseball game, and could easily pick up your computer then, and ship it to you (just shipped a computer with UPS, it was about $50, $25 for the box and $25 for the shipping).

  12. I’m glad for the (reasonably) happy ending. However, the lessons learned should be:
    1. encrypt your laptop harddrive
    2. when you travel and leave your laptop out of sight (e.g. in a car trunk) power it off first.
    3. regularly make backups

  13. Isn’t it amazing how we can use the technology that is availiable at the time to crack down on crime? Anyone else think it would be a awesome thing if law enforcement specialized in this? ^^

  14. Sometimes I look stupid (or fresh) because I carry my laptop with me whenever I have to stop for an errand but it takes just a few seconds to detect (they have devices that scans cars to detect them) and steal electronic devices. I hope tour story will teach a lot of people to NEVER LEAVE an iphone ipad or laptop in your car

  15. Great story !
    I imagine it was a hard time for you and your friend but it is very fun to read.

    It made me remember the Defcon 18 speech “Pwnd by the owner, what happens when you steal a hacker”

  16. Drugs bust? I thought it was going to be kilos of heroin or something. What a sensationalist title. You might as well have said they were found drinking beer.

  17. I was just in Detroit visiting friends and they live in Huntington Woods, a very nice neighborhood. If you can’t move the Hackerspace to a better neighborhood, try at least keeping some gear in a nicer neighborhood when it’s not needed.

  18. I’m cracking up that the SUV offered for sale on Craigslist, the one that helped this fellow help the cops bust the thief, is most likely itself also stolen – note that the driver side handle “needs [to be] fixed”!!

  19. One commenter said that it was because he DIDN’T have a password that he was able to retrieve his stuff. The thief got online, which activated security features. Could we create 2 users – OWNER (w password) and GUEST (no password)?

  20. I never, EVER leave my computer in my car. Or anyone else’s car. A lesson not lost on you, I’m sure. My brother-in-law had his laptop stolen. I wept for him thinking of what I would lose in a similar situation. Backup is a good recommendation, too. P.S. I worked in Detroit (medical center / university district) for 20 years. Hadn’t had a single bad thing happen to any of the cars I drove during this time — including two foreign cars. But that’s more the exception than the norm, I think.

  21. Awesome story. I love doing this kind of thing for my friends. I show them how easy it is to scope people out with all of the free goodies on the internet. I think it makes them more aware and security conscious. I just like being nosey.

  22. I also recovered my stolen computer by accessing it via Teamviewer… That guy was in his facebook account at that moment. I took screenshots and messaged him that Then I messaged him that he is using a stolen computer and that I had his ID.
    I told him to meet me inn front of a local Police station where he handed th computer over to me.. Lateron I filed a complaint etc..

  23. Great story, but I can’t believe the number of cynics and pessimists that can’t appreciate it. It is almost as discouraging as the crime itself. First of all, the fact that SWAT was called it not an issue for me. After all, how many of you knew you could access a trunk by punching a screw driver in a door handle to gain access to the cabin. (Before you answer, I am either naive or you are a criminal) It is not likely this person is new to criminal activity, would you rather the story read, “Detroit Police officer killed while serving warrant, survived by wife and two children.” Secondly, if you are discrediting the work of the Detroit PD because the poster did ALL of the work, you are probably someone who sits home all day in your pajamas watching cynical TV shows and complaining about all of the problems in the world, I bet it was only yesterday you uttered the words, “What’s the point in voting, I don’t like any of the candidates!” (When are we going to see your name on the ballot) In fact, if Detroit PD did do ALL of the work, you’d be complaining they had nothing better to do. What is wrong with the poster taking some initiative to solve his own problem? Especially since he did it with good judgment by realying his finidngs to the Detroit PD, rather than purchasing a handgun and showing up at the address he found unannounced. Detroit PD did the hard part after using the information gathered by the poster. As for the ‘Poor Guy’ he probably bought the laptop, once again, way to see the negative Captain Loser. You don’t think he rolled on the person who (a) sold him the laptop, (b) sold him the drugs, (c) anyone he could think of to get him out of the mess he is in now. I have too many friends that work in law enforcement, these loser gangbangers that shoot you in the head for no reason other than to gain access to the ‘Loser Club,’ cry like little girls as soon as they hit the back seat of the police car, they’ll confess to stealing cookies in the third grade. The entrire post is great insight into good police work, a small crime led to bigger arrests… and if you think selling ‘weed’ is a victimless crime, you are as ignorant as you are a cynical. I don’t need to get on my soapbox here, because I am not sure marijuana is a danergous to the general population as alcohol is, but while it remains illegal, there are certainly many victims suffering from the illegal trade.

    Get off your coach, get a job and contribute to society, stop reading blogs and posting you tears all day long. I happend across this article while checking my emails and thought I would get a ‘feel good’ story, until I read the comments. Well, I will move on from the comments and relay the ‘GREAT POLICE WORK’ story I just read on the internet. As for you, remember… the difference between winners and losers is perspective, winners see opportunities to improve themselves and the world around them and then take action, losers just surf the net for places to inject cynicism and sarcasm. HAVE A GREAT DAY ALL! I have things to do.

  24. About that beer you owe the detective, Why not find out when the Detroit Police Department has it’s picnic and order a keg delivered to him and his SWAT team buddies at the picnic. The whole department will want a taste and hear the story, learning how to find stolen computers.

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