Tom Ross: Mobile phone leads to app-rehension of suspected laptop thief
May 9, 2014
Steamboat Springs — The "Find My Phone” applications for mobile devices probably were designed to help people who accidentally misplaced their smartphones in the laundry basket or in the tall grass next to a picnic spot. But Steamboat Springs resident Barb Shipley found out this winter that Find My iPhone also can be a big help in catching a laptop computer thief.
Thanks to a couple of good decisions on Shipley's part, and some fortuitous circumstances, Denver police were able to recover her computer from an alleged thief.
Shipley, a Realtor with Steamboat Sotheby’s International Realty, was on her way to catch an out-of-state wedding in January, and her flight wasn't until the next morning. With time to socialize, she arranged to meet a couple of good friends for dinner at the Cherry Creek Grill (she has friends everywhere she goes). She parked her Trailblazer about six spaces away from the front door of the restaurant, locked the car door and because she was in one of Denver's toniest districts, didn't think twice about leaving her briefcase on the passenger seat.
"I got in the car and when I was pulling a u-turn, all this glass fell in my lap from the centrifugal force," Shipley recalled. "I look over, my windshield is shattered and my briefcase, which has been packed for the trip with my brand-new MacBook Air and my billfold, all the stuff you carry, is gone."
Shipley quickly grasped that she couldn't leave her car in an airport parking lot in January with a broken window. So she resigned herself to missing her flight and the wedding.
"I immediately called to cancel everything — credit cards, bank accounts, because I've had problems with identity theft before," Shipley said.
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As a member of the digitally challenged generation, one of the good decisions Shipley made when she purchased her laptop was hiring a professional like Marcus Worthen, of Ski Town Computing, to step up her machine. The morning after the theft, she contacted him to consult about the possibilities of wiping her computer free of her personal data.
"He said, 'No problem, I installed Find My iPhone on your new MacBook.' I hadn't really learned all this stuff, but he said if the thieves left it turned on, 'It will ping to your phone. Let's take a chance and not erase the stuff for a least a day.'"
Worthen followed up and sure enough, at 11:30 a.m., Shipley's phone received a message: "Barb's iPhone found."
"I called Marcus and he sends me a map with the address that shows the house where my MacBook Air is off Federal over by the football stadium," she said.
That's when Shipley made another good decision. Instead of investigating on her own, she went straight to the Denver police.
That might seem like an obvious course of action. But a May 3 article in The New York Times reported how police agencies in Los Angeles are increasingly concerned about people who are using "find my phone" apps to take matters into their own hands.
Shipley waited in the police station for four hours before following two officers to an unnamed convenience store not far from the residence where her laptop was thought to be held hostage.
"The officers knocked on the door and a young man answered," she said.
They recognized a laptop that matched her description but when they inquired about it, the man said he had purchased it just the night before. When it was explained to him that the laptop, which was fatefully still turned on, was sending pings to the phone of the rightful owner, he surrendered it on the spot.
He wasn't immediately arrested, but an ensuing investigation led to charges being filed and a court date has been set.
Worthen said Friday that the key to success for people wanting to protect their mobile devices this way is to connect them to the "cloud," (a euphemism for a giant data storage server) or in this case, iCloud.
"That's the key to succeeding," he said. "The cloud registers the computer (and phone or tablet) to a unique serial number. A thief could be using the computer but if they ever brought it in for repair, it would be recognized as your computer."
Worthen has been subpoenaed to potentially testify at the trial of the alleged thief, which could mean losing a day of work. He doesn't mind a bit.
"I'm a big believer in using technology to go after dirtbags," he said.