Laptop Recovery Against the Odds

In February 2009, David Krop parked his SUV in a Miami parking garage, where he was attending a business meeting.  In the SUV, he left two laptop computers, a Toshiba and an Apple Macbook.  When he returned to his car, the passenger window was shattered, and the two laptops had disappeared.

The authorities to whom Krop reported the crime had negative predictions that Krop would ever see his computers again.  However, with the aid of an ingenious software program and a dose of creativity and espionage, this 41-year-old marketing vice-president for Nationwide Diabetic was able to recover both his laptops.

When he realized the laptops were gone, Krop fought a surge of panic.  He filed a police report, listened to their pessimistic forecast, and drove home with a “terrible feeling in the pit of (my) stomach.”  Krop had never anticipated the theft of his computers, and had done nothing to password-protect or any other security measure.  It was a catastrophe.

It was only later that Krop recalled a program installed on his Toshiba laptop that was to be his ticket to success.  The program was a trial version of LogMeIn, remote-access software that can allow a user to see the desktop of a faraway PC.  While the program doesn’t boast the recovery features sported by other more advanced programs, Krop saw an opportunity, however remote, to connect to his stolen computer.

The largest hurdle, ironically, was simply remembering his LogMeIn username and password.  After a few hours of searching he was finally able to connect, using a different computer.  To his surprise and delight, someone was online using his Toshiba laptop at that exact moment, visiting porn websites.  “Just the fact that he was online at that moment was amazing,” Krop later recalled.  “My eyes just lit up.”

Once Krop connected, a text box from the LogMeIn system appeared on the screen of the stolen Toshiba laptop.  The user of the stolen computer clicked it off and Krop lost the connection.  Several minutes later he tried again, however, and the other user chose to minimize and ignore the text box, enabling Krop to continue his observations.

Krop the Internet Spy

Krop devised a plan of action in which he would observe the user of his stolen Toshiba and collect as much information as he could about the thief, then bring the evidence to the police and get their assistance in getting his laptops back.  To that end Krop, completely undetected, was able to watch the Toshiba user visit dozens of porn sites, save pictures, and place Craigslist ads for what seemed to be a female modeling operation.  The user also checked email, Myspace, and Facebook frequently, an dmade use of instant message software to chat with several friends.

Krop described the experience of ‘spying’ on the stolen computer user as a strange, but incredible, feeling.  He said, “It’s like, here’s someone who breaks into my car and stole my computers, and I’m breaking back into my computer.”

Beyond simple surveillance, Krop soon began taking screenshot “photos” of his Toshiba’s desktop.  He soon had an even better idea, and using the video camera of the computer he was working from, he recorded the other user’s computer use for over three hours.  “At this point,” Krop said,”this guy’s got his Hotmail open, a chat box open, Craigslist open, and he’s downloading photos and videos as well.”

Krop then hit the jackpot, as the Toshiba user opened a video chat session with a friend.  Krop already had the person’s name, email addresses, and phone number, plenty of information to provide the police ample cause to help him.  Now, by a sudden windfall, he even had a current image of the suspect’s face.

An online service provided Krop with an address for the suspect as well, for ten dollars.  The man who used the Toshiba laptop lived on Miami beach, not far from the parking structure the laptop had disappeared from.

Hot Tip to the Police

The next morning, Miami Beach detectives AJ Prieto and matt Ambre received phone calls from a police clerk.  They were told there was a “lot of evidence they needed to see.”  Though they both were off that day, they reported to the station and again met David Krop.

Krop had come armed with a DVD, which contained all of the incriminating video and screenshots he had collected.  He also has a notepad where he had sorted all the information he had gathered, making it easy to understand.  After reviewing the evidence, Detective Prieto told Krop, “I think we’ll get those laptops back for you now.”

Prieto and Ambre obtained the suspect’s home address and paid him a visit, discovering him actually using the missing Toshiba laptop.  The man quickly surrendered and gave up the laptop to police custody.  “I think he was aware that something was not right,” Prieto later surmised.

The man protested that he had not stolen the laptop.  Rather, he had bought it for $300 in his local barbershop.  A man had come into the barbershop offering laptop computers for sale.  The man had bought the Toshiba, and the barbershop owner had purchased the Macbook.  The barber corroborated the man’s story, absolving his responsibility for the theft.

Almost a month later, Krop was contacted by a staff attorney in the Florida State Attorney General’s office.  The police had arrested the man suspected to have stolen the computers from Krop’s SUV.  Lacking enough evidence to hold and charge him, however, the state had been forced to release the suspect.

The Danger of Buying a Used Computer

The buyer of the stolen Toshiba was later interviewed.  He recounted the story of the presumed thief entering the barbershop with laptops for sale.  The buyer had a PC at home, but was faced with hundreds of dollars worth of repair.  “Instead of paying to get my viruses fixed,” he said, “I thought I’d buy this one.”

That weekend, he had a visit from Detectives Prieto and Ambre.  “They sat me down and said ‘We need the laptops,” he said.  He hadn’t known whether the laptop was stolen or not, but didn’t care.  “I buy stolen stuff all the time… If I can save $600, I’ll do it.”  As a result of this experience, however, and knowing his activities can be monitored and tracked from other computers, he will no longer be buying computers in barbershops.

And what of David Krop?  “I’ve learned to always, always, always take my laptops with me and to never leave them in the car, even if it’s for just a few minutes,” he said.  He also tends to travel with only one laptop these days, instead of two.  He’s also learned a vital lesson about log-in passwords on all his computers.  And, just in case, he’s equipped them all with remote tracking software, so no similar adventures are likely to happen in the future.

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