Photo by Felix Russell-Saw on Unsplash

Tracking Down a Laptop Thief at Yale

On the evening of Saturday, April 21st 2018, as I was congratulating fellow seniors at their final performance at a Yale theater, someone took my backpack from my seat and walked out the door with it. With that, they took my Mac, my phone, and much of my personal notes and memories. Here is a story of how I tracked him down.

11:20 PM — Theft occurs. The thief walks outside the theater with the laptop bag.

11:30 PM — A friend and I activate Find My Mac to hopefully find it in the theater. We press the “Scream” button in hopes that it would be somewhere in the theater. However, this just made matters worse. It tipped off the person that had the Mac who promptly turned it off. The last location shows that it appears to be in the Yale Hall of Graduate Studies (HGS).

11:35 PM — We contact the Yale Police Department and file a report. An officer walks to the theater to collect our statements & description. He mentions that detectives will look through the footage of nearby cameras, but the amount of audience members leaving will make the task difficult.

12:30 AM — I walk around the hall of graduate studies with the police officer and check the perimeter in the hopes that the thief ditched the bag in the basement or in a moat.

1:00 AM — After finding a nearby public computer, I realize my phone has a third party tracking software that I use to confirm the phone is still in HGS.

Now, Android location hardware is nowhere as reliable as Apple hardware. So I only use this as a rough verification tool that the phone is still near where the Mac’s last location was shown.

Quick Aside: Activating two-factor authentication on your phone means that when your phone is stolen, you will not be able to access your Google Account and track your phone. Google needs to fix this… Apple allows you to use limited apps like Find my iPhone even when two-factor authentication is enabled.

1:10 AM — I reach back out to the police, but this time, the officers are much less helpful. They attempt to use Google Maps to “go to the dot” effectively on a wild goose chase as Android location will never be that accurate, and Google Maps will never lead you inside the building. It was clear to me that the police wouldn’t be able to help any further, and I would be on my own.

1:40 AM — I reach out to friends and ask to borrow their iPad & other electronic devices. I make a public Facebook plea to see if anyone has seen the person walking out with the backpack.

1:50 AM — With a friend, I scan through the floors of HGS using Find My iPhone on her iPhone to hopefully narrow down the previous location, but we don’t find anything fruitful.

2:30 AM — After borrowing my roommate’s laptop and obtaining a copy of the guest list, I individually match emails through the internal Yale directory, and narrow down the list to five people who are Yale graduate students that all bought individual tickets.

Now, not everyone that entered bought a ticket, so this could have been a false lead. Even if one of them was the person that took it, I was very hesitant about potentially worrying or accusing 4 innocent people. I decided only to reach out as a last resort.

2:45 AM — After checking my email, I realize that when the thief turned off the alarm on my mac, they turned the mac on briefly, which allowed it to connect to Yale’s wifi. OS X Mail automatically pulls email from Gmail whenever it hasn’t been connected in a while. Using Gmail’s “Last Account Activity” feature, I would be able to track down an IP address of the Mac when it was connected. Hopefully, this means I’d be able to track down the IP address of the router.

Unluckily for me, Yale ITS doesn’t work at 3AM. What a surprise :(

I decide to save it and contact ITS tomorrow morning if needed.

4:00 AM — Fortunately, I was also logged in to my Yale account without two factor auth on my phone. This didn’t give me any new location data, but it did tell me that my phone was on 20% and the thief disconnected it from the battery pack it was connected to, but didn’t turn it off.

I remembered that my phone still had bluetooth on, which is why the battery drained so fast. However, this meant I could potentially use bluetooth to narrow down the location. My Fitbit was still paired to my phone, so as long as I got close enough, I would be able to receive all the notifications on my watch.

I run back to HGS with this new information.

5:00 AM — On each of the two flights of stairs, I stand as close as possible to the door to the hallway with all the dorm rooms, holding my Fitbit on my wrist next to the thinnest part on the door, in the hopes that the Bluetooth signal would penetrate through.

6:00 AM — I tracked the thief to floor six. I was able to receive my messages through the door, but I still had no way to get in to the hallway, much less the person’s room. I resolved to either wait for someone to wake up and let me in, when I found out that my phone was on 11% battery. It would be going into low-power mode soon, which meant that bluetooth signals and location data would be much more unreliable.

6:30 AM —I decide that it’s worth it to have my phone scream before it turns off. I put a message on the lock screen saying “I have taken your photo and will send it to police if you do not email me immediately.” This was actually an empty threat as I had no way of taking his photo. I just sat outside the door to the hallway where he lived and hoped to catch him going to the bathroom. If this didn’t work, there would be no way to link him to the crime after the phone was dead.

6:41 AM — SUCCESS!

7:00 AM — Time to go home & sleep :)

His name was one of the five graduate students in the list that had purchased tickets. I don’t know if there’s any legal standing for a crime, but I would definitely be open to releasing his name privately if any administrators are reading this.

Lessons Learned:

  • I love my friends. Moments like these are why I’m so glad and fortunate to have so many caring friends that will literally drop whatever thesis/fun thing they’re doing to come help.
  • Information imbalances create power. Don’t press the “scream” button except as a last resort. Always hint that you have more information than you’re letting on. Make your threats sound more legitimate by dropping little bits of information, but never reveal everything you know.
  • Use your own expertise. As a Computer Science major, I’m familiar with the range of bluetooth or Wifi, and the limitations of location tracking with different hardware capabilities.

Thanks again to all my friends who messaged me back @ 3AM and to those of you who went out of your way to support me.

SWE @ Nuro | Formerly Facebook/Google | Yale ’18 | alanliu.dev

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