If you've ever lost a laptop or had one stolen, you know what an awful feeling it leaves behind. But a new breed of laptop security software is turning the tables on thieves, giving owners and police a fighting chance of recovering the missing property and sometimes even bringing thieves to justice.
Stories of laptop theft are all too common. A 2008 report from Dell Computer and the Ponemon Institute shows that up to 12,000 laptops are lost in U.S. airports every week. And a 2002 Gartner study says that the odds that a randomly selected laptop will be stolen are 1 in 10. The vast majority of these computers are never recovered.
Laptops are appealing to thieves hoping to make a quick buck. Many such criminals struggle with substance abuse. "They're people with drug problems, methamphetamine problems," says Marc Hinch, an agent with the San Mateo County [California] Vehicle Theft Task Force.
"Go to a crankster's house and you'll find a lot of stolen property--he's got six or seven laptops in there," says Hinch, who runs a Website called Stolen911 where people can list and search for stolen property.
How It Works
Laptop security software won't prevent thieves from jacking your hardware, but it can help police recover your PC after it's been pinched, and in some cases catch the thief, too.
Computer-tracking apps such as Flipcode Ltd.’s Hidden, ActiveTrak's GadgetTrak, and Absolute Software's LoJack for Laptops use IP addresses to pinpoint the location of a stolen laptop. When (and if) the thief connects to the Internet, the software begins sending e-mail alerts back to the software maker and to the laptop owner's e-mail account. LoJack forwards this information to law enforcement, whereas GadgetTrak and Hidden require users to take that step themselves.
The software also reports the IP address that the laptop is connecting from. The software company and/or police can then subpoena the appropriate ISP to obtain the physical address associated with the IP address. This approach isn't perfect, however. A thief who logs on from Starbucks obviously isn't using his home address. Or he might steal his neighbor's Wi-Fi, in which case the police may knock at the door of a guy who's just too naive to secure his home router.
GadgetTrak and Hidden use a laptop's Webcam to take secret photos of whoever's using the computer. Absolute Software removed this feature from its security products, following a controversial 2010 incident in which parents accused a suburban Philadelphia school district of spying on students with school-issued laptops. The district was using Absolute's LANRev software, which included the picture-taking feature.
Laptop security vendors usually charge an annual subscription fee: GadgetTrak for Mac and Windows laptops costs $35 a year; Hidden is $15; and LoJack for Laptops is $40. Multiyear and multiuser plans cost more, of course.
Do these programs work? Definitely. These real-world recovery stories show how.
Carolina Smash and Grab
One night in September 2010, Guy Louthian of Columbia, South Carolina, was driving home from work when his wife called to ask if he'd like to meet for dinner at a nearby restaurant. "I said, 'Sure,'" he recalls. But because Louthian had planned to drive directly home, his sport jacket and his briefcase containing a Dell laptop were in plain sight in the back seat, not hidden safely in the trunk.
The restaurant, Scottie's Café & Grill, is situated just off the interstate and is attached to a brightly lit gas station. "There are people all over the place," says Louthian, who manages billings and collections for medical practices. "I pulled in and forgot that my briefcase was in the back seat."
When Louthian walked out to his car after dinner, he noticed that his feet were crunching on something hard. "I looked down, and it was glass. I looked up, and my back window was busted," he recalls. His laptop, briefcase, and jacket were gone.
Louthian immediately contacted the police; and when he arrived home an hour later, he suddenly remembered that he was a LoJack subscriber. So he went to Absolute Software's Customer Center Website and reported his laptop as stolen.
Weeks passed without any word of his computer. Periodically, Louthian would receive e-mail messages from Absolute's Monitoring Center, informing him that the Absolute software on his laptop hadn't yet sent an alert e-mail back. (When a missing laptop connects to the Internet, LoJack's Computrace Agent software secretly contacts Absolute.) But then came a breakthrough.
"A few days before Christmas, I get a phone call from the sheriff's department, and they said, 'We have located your laptop, and we're going to get it. We should have it tomorrow.'"
"I said, 'Are you kidding me?' He said, 'No, LoJack has contacted us.'" Louthian recovered his laptop the next day.
"A guy in North Carolina, a few hundred miles away, had bought my laptop at a flea market," he says. "He had gone online to play some games, and as soon as he did, LoJack called in."
Absolute sent local law enforcement authorities a picture of the laptop user's house, as well as directions for getting there. The police did not arrest the user, and they say it's unlikely that the thief or thieves will ever be caught.
Someone had wiped all of the data off the laptop. But since Louthian used online service Carbonite to back up his files, he didn't lose any information.
"I would've loved to have caught the people who did it," he says. "I would've liked to have gotten my jacket back--my favorite sport coat. Maybe one day I catch somebody walking down the road with it on."
A Hail Mary Recovery
Michael Kuzmack is a student at St. Mary's College in Moraga, California. On Veteran's Day, 2010, he and a friend were hanging out, playing computer games. They took a break to grab lunch at the school cafeteria, and Kuzmack brought along his Toshiba laptop in its case.
"I accidentally left it in the food area," says Kuzmack, who is majoring in accounting with a minor in theater. A worker found the computer and put it in his checkout podium stand. But then the laptop mysteriously vanished.
"I was freaking out because I lost my laptop. Finals were in the next two weeks. I looked around the school for two days. Then I remembered I had GadgetTrak installed," says Kuzmack. He went to the company's Website at once to activate the tracking feature.
For a couple of weeks, Kuzmack didn't hear a peep from GadgetTrak. "I was really angry. I was like, 'Oh, I just wasted my money on this piece of crap,'" he says. But then he started receiving e-mail messages from the software, including clandestine photos of a young male in his late teens or early twenties using his laptop, and Google Maps with directions to the laptop's location.
In all, GadgetTrak sent him more than 1500 pieces of e-mail, which Kuzmack showed to campus security and the Moraga Police Department.
Detectives tracked the computer to a residence in Richmond, California, some 20 miles northwest of St. Mary's. They recovered Kuzmack's laptop, but were unable to make an arrest.
"In the course of recovering it, the person we saw on camera using [the laptop] wasn't there," says Moraga police detective Will Davis.
Police later questioned the suspect. "He came up with a plausible--though very suspect--story of another person who works in that area, who he claims gave him the laptop," says Davis.
The detective's take on laptop-recovery software? "It's great for getting the device back. Resulting in convictions? Not a hundred percent," he laughs.
Things to Do in Denver When You're Hooked on Crank
In the summer of 2010, Denver's Park Hill neighborhood was struck by a rash of nighttime burglaries. The robbers hit 21 homes, and police had few clues to work with, other than a partial description of one of the culprits.
The case was bizarre. "Burglaries just don't happen at night--very seldom anymore," says Denver police burglary detective John Haney, who solved the case with his brother and fellow detective Mark. The bad guys "don't want to see anybody," he says. "They want to kick your door in when you're not home."
Another development concerned police: The thieves were growing bolder and more brazen. In one incident, one of the intruders had pressed a knife against a woman's throat.
Thanks to security software and some dogged detective work, the police were able to nab the villains. After checking the paperwork associated with the victims' stolen items--which included a 2005 Toyota Solara, cell phones, cameras, and household items--John Haney noticed that one of the laptops that the thieves had grabbed included an installed copy of LoJack.
"Did you know you're paying for LoJack?" he asked the laptop's owner.
"What is LoJack?" the woman replied.
"Well, you paid for it, and hopefully it will help," he told her.
Haney contacted Absolute Software, which provided an IP address pinpointing where the stolen laptop had connected to the Internet, along with a photo of a man using the computer.
"They were on it right away," says Haney of the Absolute team. "They were a huge help."
The information led police to a Denver-area home, where the occupants identified the man in the photo as Zakee Toliver, who later confessed to the crimes and ratted out his juvenile partner. Toliver received a 12-year prison sentence for his role in the home invasions.
Haney believes security software is worth the expense. "Laptops are stolen so often, and if more people were to pay for a tracking system and keep their paperwork, it would really help," he says.
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.
"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.
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.
"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."