Laptop stolen and my world upside down! This is how I got it back.

In November 2015, someone knocked on the door while I was upstairs and, finding it unlocked, took the opportunity to quickly snatch my Mac Book Pro and new iPhone 6. It was several hours before I realized that the items were missing. I filed a police report, but there was not much that the police department could do.

Luckily, I had installed Prey Project anti-theft software on the laptop. This tracking software can be remotely activated to record the GPS location of a digital device or even snap screenshots and photos of the person using the laptop. I immediately reported my laptop stolen through Prey Project’s website and waited.

Two Stories of the Post-Theft Waiting Game

A Two-Month Wait

I had locked down my laptop well enough to prevent unauthorized access, which was a blessing and a curse: it was very difficult for someone to use it which, in turn, made it very difficult to “catch” them with Prey Project.

After two months of waiting for Prey to be triggered, I gave up hope of finding my devices and finally decided to purchase a new laptop. One week after my purchase, I received an email from Prey with a photo of a woman using my laptop in another city.

I immediately contacted the police and gave them her location, photo, and screenshots of what she was doing. I also upgraded my Prey Account to take more frequent photos to aid the officers in the recovery of the device. Eighteen days after Prey was triggered, the Sheriff’s Department successfully recovered the laptop.


Recovered Laptop with Evidence Tags

A Three-Day Wait

Clark Mackey, one of CAKE’s owners, also recovered a laptop thanks to Prey Project. He had the advantage of having a guest account on his laptop, so his stolen computer got used right away. Clark was also able to get prompt help from an Asheville Police Department officer who was excited about the idea of using the Prey data to recover a stolen laptop. Within a day of the theft, Prey was providing screenshots of the kid who had stolen the device from our office, and within three days, Clark had his laptop back in hand.


Data Captured with Prey Project

Tips for Using Prey Project (I.E. Learn from My Mistakes!)

Prey Project made recovering my laptop possible, although I made some fundamental mistakes along the way. Here are some tips to help you successfully recover your stolen devices much faster.

  1. Take photos of your devices and store them remotely. I did not have any identifying photos of my laptop or know the serial or model number. The police department needs this information as verification that the device is actually yours. Take photos of your device, including serial and model numbers, and store them online using a cloud storage service such as Google Drive or Dropbox. Do not rely on Prey Project to store this information. Sometimes their software may read the serial number off of the motherboard, which is a different number and could falsely disprove that the laptop is indeed yours.
  2. Load Prey Project on all your devices. Unfortunately, I did not recover the iPhone 6. The phone was new, and I had not yet installed Prey. The truth is, authorities will not go out of their way to investigate a $600 phone theft when there are much more serious crimes that require their focus. This is understandable but unfortunate for me. With Prey installed, I could have helped the investigation.
  3. Create a guest login account. I had my laptop locked down too tight, which inevitably delayed the process of recovering my device. Create a guest login account that doesn’t require a password and make sure your personal login account does require a password. This will allow someone to use the device much sooner, enabling you to more quickly track down your device using Prey without compromising the security of your personal account.
  4. Do a trial run. When you setup Prey on your device, make sure it works properly. Report your device as stolen or missing through their website and see if it finds the device. It would be a shame to have it installed and find out that it did not work for some small technical reason when you needed it the most.
  5. Upgrade your account. Once Prey Project found my laptop, it was taking photos only every 10 minutes and sending notifications to my email. Notifications were limited to 20 reports, with any additional reports getting deleted. I chose to upgrade to their Pro account so that Prey would take screenshots every two minutes and send up to 100 reports. This allowed me to learn the name and address of the woman using my laptop quickly and helped the police recover it more easily. Remember that GPS locations are only approximate guesses. A screenshot of someone editing the details of an account is more accurate—and more frequent screenshots increase the likelihood of receiving identifying information.
  6. Star the important reports and download them. The reports that you “star” as important do not get automatically deleted from your account once the report limit is reached. These reports will likely need to be referenced several times throughout the investigation, so it’s important that you have them on hand. It would also be wise to download copies and email them to the detective who is investigating your case.

Even though I had a large amount of evidence about my stolen laptop and the person using it, it still took almost three weeks for the police to recover it. The reality is that the police will help you when they can, but it may not always be enough. They have many other cases and situations to deal with in addition to yours. Thankfully, Prey Project was able to raise the priority of the case, due to the overwhelming amount of intel and evidence, resulting in a successful recovery.

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