How I Got My Stolen Laptop Back Within 24 Hours Using Prey

Last weekend, my briefcase was stolen out of our vehicle while it was parked outside of a Bed & Breakfast. In the bag was my MacBook and all of my documents for work. Apparently while I was moving all of our stuff into the house, someone grabbed the bag and ran before I came back.

Note: We've previously walked through how to track and potentially recover your stolen laptop with the free, open-source application Prey. This post, from Prey user Doug van Spronsen, details how the recovery process can potentially work. For a different perspective, see a few lessons learned from a stolen laptop — the kind you learn when you haven't set up many security measures.

Because nothing else was stolen or moved around, we didn't even notice it was missing until the following morning. After searching around frantically, it was clear the bag was gone. Elyse suggested we file a police report, so we called the RCMP. (I was pretty sceptical of them finding anything, but we filed it anyway, which later turned out to be essential.)

Needless to say, I was pretty upset that everything was gone.

After driving for a while to our next destination thinking the laptop was long gone, I sort of remembered downloading a tracking program a while back after hearing about Sean Power recovering his laptop after it was stolen.

I logged in using on my iPhone, and reported the device as missing using the software Prey. Unbelievably, within 10 minutes, I began getting emails sent to me that looked like the image above. (I blurred the images, as I am not sure about the legality of it all.)

Every 20 minutes, Prey would send me a photo of the guy who stole my laptop, his location, and a screenshot of the websites that he was looking at. The photos also gave a lot of clues about what the house looked like, which was important as well.

We immediately called the police dispatch, and within a few hours of us reporting everything missing, I was able to give all of the information verbally over the phone to the policewoman. (As an aside, throughout the entire process, the police were 100% responsive and ready for action. The constable we were working with never even saw the data, she just went off of what I said. It was pretty impressive to see. I also found it humorous that they were completely mind-boggled that you could track someone in this way)

Anyways, the police went to the location that Prey said the device was located, but the house was deserted and no one answered. Because they didn't have a warrant, they were not able to enter the house.

The email updates had stopped coming, meaning the thief wasn't using my laptop anymore, so we couldn't track it. We resumed our vacation (wine tasting in Naramata, great for stress relief) and waited for the emails to start coming in again.

The next night, he started using the computer. Because he was logged into Facebook, I could see what his name was, his age, and his school through the screenshot. As you can see below, he was even bragging to his friends about buying a 17" laptop for "$2250" and saying that he "bought it".

Getting his name was key, because the police were then able to get the full address of where he lived, and closed in fast. Turned out Prey had the location a bit wrong, so getting his name was key. At this point, the police felt that they had enough information to confront the thieves, and made their move.

It was pretty funny to witness, because after I hung up with the police as they were about to make their move, I received this screenshot.

Note how no one was there anymore? That's because the police were questioning him.

Both kids made a full confession immediately, and brought up everything that they nabbed. Amazingly, they had got a lot more than I originally thought. In addition to my laptop, I forgot that my camera and iPod were in the bag (yikes) and our GPS unit as well, but they returned everything.

I made the drive back to Kelowna and recovered everything from the policewoman. I was pretty amazed. Everything was in great condition and running fine.

So a big thanks to the Kelowna RCMP and to Prey, which I highly recommend downloading. It is free to use, easy to set up, and, as you can tell, works pretty well.

Doug van Spronsen (@dougvs) is a Digital Strategist with DDB Canada. Read more about Doug at his marketing blog.


Comments

    CYBER JUSTICE! This is the greatest thing I have read in ages!

    Great early morning read, good to know you got everything back. If i ever buy a laptop i will probably put Prey or something similar on it.

      I would highly recommend it. The only thing that is essential is that you have a guest account created, to prevent the person from reformatting your hardrive before you have a chance to get info on it. That is the only reason why I was able to find him

    I imagine if you had a password on your machine prey would be next to useless, as they wouldn't be able to get in to use anything (and as he found out wifi based location tracking can only get you the approximate location).

    Maybe its prudent to have a honeypot account that can have basic functionality but not access to any important data files, otherwise the crims would be force to either reformat first or reset the password (though they probably arn't smart enough for either, so it'll just get trashed)

      Prey has an option to enable a guest account login right on it's main configuration screen :)

        Ahh well it seems they already thought of that, hopefully they also warn people to lock down files as well. I'm naughty, i have data files all over the place so if i had a Guest account they would be easily accessible.

        Where is this option in the configuration screen? I'm having trouble finding it.

    They should limit publications like this. Sure it's good, heart-warming, story to read, not to mention good publication for Prey.

    But - this also teaching those thief-will-be on how to counter this security measures. Yes, just by reading this article alone - there are many weak points that this Prey can offer and easily overcome by any novice thief with brain attached.

      The main ways to defeat software like prey:
      -Never connect it to a network. Prey will attempt to connect to open wifi networks so you'll have to physically disable the card.
      -Reformat the laptop. You'd be surprised how few thieves know or want to do this, when it really should be a first step for computers.

      I haven't yet had to track a laptop with preyproject, but I have managed to get a few work iphones back via Find My Iphone. They just leave the phone turned on for days without hitting the 'wipe' button.

      I was surprised by how responsive the police are when you have an exact physical location.

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