How Tracking Down My Stolen Computer Triggered a Drug Bust

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.
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