Victory for the Nerds: A Tale of Recovering a Stolen Laptop

Brace yourself, this is a long one. Scroll to the end for the TL;DR.

Before

My wife and I got back home from our honeymoon on Monday morning (July 4th) at about 3:30 AM. We went to our bedroom and immediately hit the pillows. Slumber never felt so good. I awoke at around 12:30 PM, anxious to get to the gym, as I had been eating grease and alcohol for over a week straight. My body was begging me for activity.

When I go to the gym I bring my iPad so that I can easily read books and run on the treadmill. (As an aside, the soaking of knowledge via a book and the sweat caused from running is like an injection of heroin for the day. Try it.) I looked around the house for my iPad, which is typically in my laptop bag. My laptop bag wasn’t anywhere. Mind you, our house looked like a tornado came through and decided to drop off a bunch of wedding gifts, clothes, and misc. crap from my old house (I had just moved in right before we left for the honeymoon). I figured that the bag was around the house somewhere. Right before we left, I also noticed that two other laptops were missing from our computer room. “No big deal.” I thought, surely they’re around here somewhere.

As my wife and I were traveling to the gym, I started to entertain the fact that maybe they could have been stolen. I still wasn’t convinced though, as we still had our flatscreen TVs, my wife’s laptop, an older Dell laptop, our bikes and other misc. valuables. Surely the thieves would have taken everything valuable? I couldn’t workout at the gym; you see, my MacBook Pro is like my baby. It felt as if I should notify an Amber Alert for my silver aluminum child.

As we were driving home, I recalled reading internet stories of nerd vigilantes hunting down the culprits of their stolen goods. I briefly fantasized about such a scenario. I remember reading that it’s common for thieves to put stolen wares on eBay or Craigslist. What could it hurt to search?

Craigslist

I walked into the door and grabbed my wife’s laptop and fired up the browser to Craigslist. I started browsing the For Sale section on computers. I quickly stumbled into some MacBook Pros. My MacBook Pro was the late 2008 model (pre-unibody). I found an ad!

Macbook pro $775… need the money. Willing to trade for…

I swiftly called.

"Do you have that, uhhh… Apple laptop for sale still?"

"Yeah, you want to look at it?"

"You bet. Where at?"

"Just come to my house… my address is ########"

"OK, I can be there in about 45 mins or so. See ya." (At this time it’s about 4:00 PM or so)

The person sounded like a teenage kid. A kid that talked like he had a bit of exposure to the inner city. This is Lincoln, Nebraska. Population: 275k. There isn’t much of an “inner-city” here. Even the closest big city, Omaha (pop 500k) doesn’t have much of an “inner-city.” But I remember at that age, acting a bit “gangsta.” Maybe that’s what he was doing.

I scrolled even lower to older laptops on Craigslist. I found another that looks like my model MBP!

"macbook 15" $850… willing to trade, need to pay off my car!"

It was weird that this listing used the same red backdrop for the laptop as the other listing but the phone number was different. I called. No answer. Not even a voicemail recording that says “this is so-and-so, please leave a message…”. Odd.

The phone then rang. It was the person that I just called.

"Yo, you just call me?"

"Uhhh… yeah, um, do you have an Apple laptop for sale? Wait, did I just talk to you?"

"Naaah man, I didn’t talk to you. But yeeuuuh, I got da laptop."

"Can I see it to check out how it works and the condition?"

"Meet me at Best Buy at like 5:30"

"Cool, I’ll see you then."

This person had the same sort of speaking style as the first person. This is a bit weird, I thought.

I jumped into the shower and planned how this might all work. I’d go to the first guy’s house around 4:45 PM and then go to Best Buy at 5:30 PM. “Perfect”, I thought. I’d be home just in time for dinner. (Douche bag alert ;p) I got out of the shower and instead of putting on my sandals and shorts, I put on sneakers and jeans. I’m 6’1” about 235 lbs. I’m fairly built. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t consider myself to be some tough bad ass or anything like that. I’d just thought that I was going into someone’s house alone that I didn’t know. This person may have my stolen property; I wasn’t sure how I’d react. Would I grab my laptop and run? Would I get angry and call the police right there? Would he and his friends be there? Would they  threaten me? I felt that if for some reason I wore sneakers and jeans, I’d be me more prepared to fight or defend myself if needed to.

I walked downstairs telling my wife my plan on visiting the kid’s house and then Best Buy and my anticipated return time. She told me that I got a text. It was the guy that I was going to meet at Best Buy.

"U gonna pay full price for the laptop"

"Ya, that might work if it’s in good condition."

"K, cuz u said u talked to me alrdy so I didn’t want the price to get messed up"

"Oh, haha. I’ve been looking at a few others so I got confused."

"Lol. I fell yeah. its in good condition. The only prob is that it has a black scuff in the right corner"

"K, that shouldn’t be a problem."

"K c ya"

My laptop had a black scuff in the righthand bottom corner! I knew this was my laptop. At this time my wife was pleading for me to call the police. I hadn’t had a police report filed yet. I’m a libertarian, so fundamentally, I like to rely upon myself to solve problems and accomplish things. Calling the police felt premature. “Honey, you know my beliefs and how I feel towards these things.” I retorted. “But, it’s OK to ask for help when you need it.” my wife incessantly pleaded. “When the time is right.”

I left and got in the car to drive the kids house. As I was driving I started thinking that it seemed pointless to go to the kids house since I was sure he didn’t have my laptop. I was also starting to think that I shouldn’t go to Best Buy alone.

Meeting at Best Buy

I called my business partner and friend, Corey, and asked him to tag along. Corey is always up for an adventure.

I arrived at his house. We quickly schemed up a plan. We both knew that if we could verify that it was my laptop we had to have the police come immediately, as the guy could ditch the laptop somewhere and it’d be tough to prove that he was in possession of stolen property.

Our plan was for me to pretend like I was a computer idiot and Corey was my friend the computer guru that came along to help me. I didn’t think I’d be alright holding the laptop and then opening up the About window to verify it was mine. I wasn’t sure if in a fit of panic I’d run with it or do something else stupid. So, Corey was going to open up the About window and I’d tell the guy that I needed to go inside Best Buy and get some cash out of the ATM machine when in reality that’s when I’d call the police. Our plan felt solid.

My wife texted me the MBP serial number found on the MBP box. Corey and I memorized it.

Just before we were about to leave I got a call from the kid whose house I decided not to go to.

"Hey, you coming over?"

"Shit, sorry, I got stuck doing some stuff. How much longer will you be there?"

"Not much longer… you can come tomorrow."

After I hung up the phone, about 30 seconds later the guy that I’m meeting at Best Buy calls.

"You still good to meet at Best Buy at 5:30?"

"Ya man."

"K, I’ll be there in a bit."

Odd that shortly after I talk to the kid, the other guy calls.

Corey lends me one of his goofy hats, ya know like that hat the kid wears in the movie Sandlot. We thought it’d be a good idea to put on a hat in event that anyone saw pictures on my hard drive of me. I considered sunglasses, but that seemed to be an overkill. Corey took the sunglasses.

We left felt like we were undercover detectives who were about to bring down and entire crime ring of thievery, drugs, and prostitution. Adrenaline was pumping.

We got there; I parked in the front. I texted him. (There were some other texts related to the minutiae of meeting, etc. During these I realized, that he was texting like a person that would cause grammar and spelling Nazis to order a holocaust on him and others like him. I’m anal with grammar and spelling in my texts to strangers. I decided that I should change my texts to be more like his so that he doesn’t suspect anything. I know, I know, I deserve the citizen’s badge of honor for such awesome undercover work.)

"U at BB yet?"

"Imma be there in like 5 min"

"K, coo"

The front of my car was facing the building. Many cars were coming and going. Could he have seen us and decided to not show up? “Corey, turn around man… let’s not be too obvious.” Corey kept turning his head around, for some reason, I believed that by him doing that, it’d blow our cover. Dumb, I know.

"Im pulling in, where u at?"

"Right front side of bldng"

"Dont see u"

No cars were coming in. Shit, he must have been camped out here. Fuck, he got scared and left, I thought.

"Still dont see u"

Finally, I saw a black Lexus with tinted windows that you couldn’t see through. The front two windows were rolled down. Corey and were relieved that he came alone.

"I think I see u, were walking to the cntr of the lot"

The person parked the car, we were approaching the passenger side. The driver looked to be Eastern European, maybe 2nd generation, with short black hair and olive colored skin wearing a white tank top and loose basketball shorts that were down to his shins. I’d guess he was in his late teens to early 20’s. As Corey and I approached the car we noticed that he didn’t come alone. There were two guys in the back seat. One looked a lot like the first, Eastern European, only younger. The other looked like a first generation immigrant from Africa. [I hope these descriptions don’t sounded bigoted, I’m just trying to accurately describe what we saw.] They were all wearing loose baggy clothes. 

We walked around to the driver’s side of the car. The guy got out and tossed the laptop onto the hood of his car.

"I’m Nico. What’s yo name?"

"Jon." (I go by JP, but for some reason I thought I’d go by Jon at that moment.)

"Cool. Here’s the laptop."

(As Corey open’s it up)

"Corey, what do you think? Will this work for me?"

"I think so…" (As he opens up the "About this Mac" screen)

I then saw the serial number. It was really my laptop! At this time, I had no idea how these guys got my laptop. I felt like I was in the movies… the black Lexus, three thugs, and my stolen property. I was pissed that they wiped it with a new copy of OS X. (Anyone know of some good file recovery software for OS X?) I asked a few more stupid question about OS X to throw him off.

"So how much do you want for it?"

"I’m asking $850, but that’s negotiable."

"Would you take $700?" (For some reason, I felt that if I told him I’d give him $850 that’d seem too weird and maybe he’d suspect something)

"Would you meet me at $775?"

"Sure, but I don’t have much cash on me. I need to go inside to the ATM."

"How much ya got on you?"

As I pulled out my wallet and started counting the cash…

"Ughhh… like $50."

"Ohh OK. We’ll just wait."

"Corey, you just wanna stay out here?"

The hope was that Corey could distract them and keep them occupied so that they didn’t worry about me taking along time.

I started to walk towards the entrance of Best Buy. “Shit, I forgot to get the license plate number.” I thought. “It’d be too obvious to turn around and get it now.” As this internal dialogue about the license plate was raging on in my head I approached the area with the Mac laptops. Beads of sweat were forming on my forehead. I was hoping that if they saw me, I could say I was looking at a few Macs for comparison. I picked up my iPhone and had the police pre-programmed in so that I didn’t have to locate the number.

"Lincoln Police service desk" a woman said.

"Hi, uggh, these guys have my stolen property. It’s my laptop. They have it now at Best Buy! You have to send some officers RIGHT NOW!" I felt that I needed to sound frantic to make the situation have a sense of urgency.

"Sir, are you with the guys?"

"They are outside, my friend is out there talking to them. They have my laptop! I think that maybe I should just grab it or something because it’s MINE." At this point, I wasn’t planning on this, but I really felt the need to make it clear that she should send some officers immediately.

"Sir, you’ll have to stall them a bit, but I’ve sent two cruisers from the nearby station."

"OK, we will be standing by a black Lexus. You can’t miss us. I’m wearing a hat and my friend is wearing sunglasses. The other guy has on a white tanktop and two guys are in his backseat."

I thanked the woman and headed over to the ATM. I wasn’t sure if any of them came inside and may have watched what I was doing, so I felt the need to withdraw at least some cash. I withdrew $200. I could claim that was the ATM limit and I was thinking that it could potentially give me an excuse to have to go the bank or something if the police didn’t show up.

I looked out the window and saw Corey walking away from their car and Nico was getting into the car. “Fuck, they are leaving!” I hurried out. Fortunately they saw me and got out of the car.

"So what’s the deal?"

"Hey uggh sorry. I was looking at other laptops inside. What’s the processor in this laptop?"

"It’s an i7 man. The best!"

"Corey, can you look at it…"

"It says Core 2 Duo."

"Ohh sorry, thought it was i7"

"How many processors are in there? Are there 8? Some of those inside have 8."  I felt the need to start asking stupid questions to stall.

"Maaannn, those are like $3000!"

"I don’t know about this Apple operating system. I’m a Windows guy. Will this do my photo editing and allow me to make Powerpoints and write papers and stuff?"

"Yeah man, I got a disk I can sell you too to make Powerpoints."

"Cool!"

Finally, I saw two cruisers pull in the parking lot. The guys were oblivious. The two in the back seat were busy texting while Nico was frustrated with my idiocy. I kept pressing with stupid questions.

One cruiser pulls behind his car and another cruiser pulls in front. The guy was a bit startled.

"That’s my laptop" I said.

"No it’s not, I’ve owned this for three years."

"No I have the serial number to prove it."

As the officer cuffed the Nico, he proclaimed that he had bought it from an African girl a week ago. Five more cruisers pulled in and surrounded the car. The two other guys were cuffed. The look on their face was if like one of a child who just got caught shoplifting at a grocery store. The ‘oh shit!’ look on their face was priceless. They knew they were caught. 

Victory for Corey and me.

Aftermath

An investigator came over that night. Shortly before he came, we realized that all of our wedding gift cards were gone and our PS3/games/controllers. We were convinced that someone knew our garage code and that’s how they got in. With the investigator we inspected possible break-in points. When we walked in the backyard and look at the back of the house it became clear. One of the screens was cut in half and the window was unlocked.

The next day we were told that the three guys did indeed buy the laptop from an African girl. I guess they met her on Facebook or something along those lines. Nico spent the night in jail since he was 19. If you recall from the beginning of the story how I was going to go to that kid’s house before I went to Best Buy, well it turns out that kid was Nico’s brother. [Found out later his name wasn’t Nico] He was sitting in the back of the car at Best Buy. The officers were able to search the African girl’s house. They recovered my iPad, PS3, some of the games, and one other laptop. My netbook is still missing. Unfortunately the African girl is saying that she broke into my house. She said that she just walked up to the door and it was unlocked. The police believe that she’s covering for someone.

Overall though, I’m not pissed anymore. It’s all just material stuff anyway. I have my health and a great life so I can’t complain too much. Plus, this will be a story that I’ll tell indefinitely.

TL;DR 3 laptops, iPad, PS3, and wedding gift cards were stolen. I found my laptop on Craigslist and busted the thugs in the Best Buy parking lot.

If you’re a software developer come checkout the startup that Corey and I created. It helps you with project management and simplifies Git.

Follow me on Twitter: @jprichardson

If you enjoyed this, you might also enjoy:

  1. Fear and Loved Ones
  2. What the Successful Will Do That You Won’t
  3. Don’t Let the Brain Prevent You From Your Goals

-JP

     

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