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Geek Avenges Stolen Laptop By Remotely Accessing Thief's Facebook Account (hothardware.com) 377

An anonymous reader quotes Hot Hardware: Stu Gale, who just so happens to be a computer security expert, had the misfortune of having his laptop stolen from his car overnight. However, Gale did have remote software installed on the device which allowed him to track whenever it came online. So, he was quite delighted to see that a notification popped up on one of his other machines alerting him that his stolen laptop was active. Gale took the opportunity to remote into the laptop, only to find that the not-too-bright thief was using his laptop to login to her Facebook account.

The thief eventually left her Facebook account open and left the room, after which Gale had the opportunity to snoop through her profile and obtain all of her private information. "I went through and got her phone numbers, friends list and pictures..." Given that Gale was able to see her phone numbers listed on Facebook, he sent text messages to all of those numbers saying that he was going to report her to the police. He also posted her info to a number of Facebook groups, which spooked the thief enough to not only delete her Facebook account, but also her listed phone numbers.

In 2008 Slashdot ran a similar story, where it took several weeks of remote monitoring before a laptop thief revealed his identity. (The victim complained that "It was kind of frustrating because he was mostly using it to watch porn.") But in this case, Gale just remotely left a note on the laptop -- and called one of the thief's friends -- and eventually turned over all the information to the police, who believe an arrest will follow.

Gale seems less confident, and tells one Calgary newspaper "I'm realistic. I'm not going to see that computer again. But at least I got some comic relief."
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Geek Avenges Stolen Laptop By Remotely Accessing Thief's Facebook Account

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  • Security expert? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 22, 2017 @04:46AM (#53714349)

    If he is such a "computer security expert", why did he not have his laptop fully encrypted as well as (naturally) an OS login password? Seems to me that he was either actively trying to bait somebody like this, or he's a complete moron.

    • by Calydor ( 739835 ) on Sunday January 22, 2017 @04:48AM (#53714355)

      Or maybe it was his "Just surf the news sites and play a game to pass the time" laptop. You know, the one with no reason whatsoever to encrypt anything.

      • by EvilSS ( 557649 )

        You know, the one with no reason whatsoever to encrypt anything.

        In this day and age there is no such thing.

      • by allo ( 1728082 )

        If he's an computer security expert, he knows that there is no such thing as "non security relevant pc", because you always leave traces of your personal data (and if its only your favourite gaming site).

        • by raymorris ( 2726007 ) on Sunday January 22, 2017 @08:26AM (#53714745) Journal

          If you go a bit beyond the corporate-mandated annual security training, most information security curriculum says that step one is identifying the assets at risk and their value. It would be silly to spend $50,000 turning your garage into a vault to protect a $15,000 car, and similarly for information security the value of the asset determines the maximum effort you should put into protecting it. This not only avoids wasting more time/money/hassle than the asset is worth, but it allows you to spend your efforts on the most valuable assets. Any time/money spent on a low-value asset is time NOT spent protecting a higher-value asset.

          The identity of your favorite gaming site is worth about 5 cents US, so it is error to spend more than 5 cents worth of time trying to protect that information.

          Additionally, in most cases it is better to protect and encrypt data on a per-account basis, for both technical and practical reasons. On a laptop, that means you encrypt the home directory, not the system. Multiple user logins have separate encryption, and one account can't access the encrypted files of another account. If you want to take it a step further, you can have a work account on the machine and a separate account for checking personal email, etc. Along with the obvious security benefits, that avoids having the browser or search engine auto-complete a URL based on *personal* browsing history in the middle of a presentation.

          Given per-account security, a guest account with restrictions on it is quite feasible, and a theif would likely click the guest account.

          • by allo ( 1728082 )

            No, the problem is, you try to seperate, what seems important and confidential to you. And there is the mistake. Because it requires you to think about what's confidential all the time.

            Why would you encrypt /home and not /? Is there any reason preventing / encryption? No.

            So you install your system, make a checkmark at "full encryption" and enter a reasonable password (here you can make tradeoffs and choose one you can remember without tools). Next you don't need to think too much while using it. Your top-se

            • If you are storing sensitive personal information on a laptop or phone, you should already know that the question is not if, but when, it is going to leak out.

              So have a plan for cases such as bank account info, and for the rest, it's not important enough to give a sh*t about anyway. There was an article about the risks of families, friends, and others snooping around your Facebook account. If you're posting stuff on Facebook, even using their privacy settings, that you don't want to get out there, you're a

            • FYI I've been a fulltime security professional for 20 years. My advice is based on what I actually do when your bank hires me to test their security, how I can actually hack your accounts.

              > No, the problem is, you try to seperate, what seems important and confidential to you. And there is the mistake.
              > Because it requires you to think about what's confidential all the time. ...

              > reading some private e-mails won't hurt now, because if they are left in the cache in your firefox profile

              I never said

          • This is an artificial and silly way to view security. Nobody gives a shit about your gaming site, but the data I obtain from your gaming site will be useful in obtaining more valuable accounts or real life threats. For example, if the gaming site shows you how much you play and when, I can be pretty sure you're not going to be home during the hours when you've never played except for national holidays. If it shows in-game "friends", I can contact them saying I know you from the game and haven't seen you on

            • > Your thought process is akin to saying it makes no sense to spend $5k to patch a 2" crack in a dam because the crack is only 2".

              No, the dam is extremely high value, therefore you pay attention to it. When the Banqiao hydroelectric dam failed, it killed hundreds of thousands of people. So the dam is at the top of your "most protected" list. What I'm saying is this:
              There's a 2 inch crack in the dam, and a 2 inch crack in the parking lot. What's your first step? Your second step?

              Obviously your first st

      • Or maybe it was his "Just surf the news sites and play a game to pass the time" laptop. You know, the one with no reason whatsoever to encrypt anything.

        The only reason to even consider "not to encrypting anything" is if your processor doesn't support AES instruction sets.

        I mean, are you actually proposing that he was likely to have a dedicated machine for gaming/browsing that had no Steam logins, no news site logins, no forum logins, in fact no logins or personal information of any kind and was never used as a backup machine to check email, etc. in a pinch?

        Just encrypt. It requires less consideration, and it removes the need to shred a drive before

    • Re:Security expert? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by freeze128 ( 544774 ) on Sunday January 22, 2017 @04:52AM (#53714367)
      If he had full disk encryption, the suspect would have to wipe the drive and reinstall to use the system. If the system was wiped, then there is less chance that the victim would be able to track down the laptop.

      You seem to think that he is a complete moron, but it seems to me that he made the right decision.
      • You seem to think that he is a complete moron, but it seems to me that he made the right decision.

        Only if he was planning to have his laptop stolen. I'd rather risk losing the laptop than risk the thief stealing my logins, wagering that he's too lazy/ignorant to bother reinstalling the OS.

        I think there might be out of band options for thief tracking if this is really a huge priority, but I think it would be better and simpler to alter one's habits to reduce the risk of theft.

      • My laptop drops into a mostly Windows desktop after a timeout for exactly above reasons.


        autologin-user=[name] - Name of the user
        autologin-user-timeout=[value] - Timeout before session is loaded

        If my laptop drops into a DOS looking command prompt they'll think the laptop is dead and won't bother trying to use it. If the laptop is usable the thief will probably try to use it as a laptop. It'll be wiped or dumped.

    • If he is such a "computer security expert", why did he not have his laptop fully encrypted as well as (naturally) an OS login password?

      And that would have prevented it from getting stolen how?

      • by EvilSS ( 557649 ) on Sunday January 22, 2017 @07:09AM (#53714595)

        If he is such a "computer security expert", why did he not have his laptop fully encrypted as well as (naturally) an OS login password?

        And that would have prevented it from getting stolen how?

        Well maybe a security expert would be smart enough to not leave a laptop unattended, much less leave it overnight in his car.

        • Well maybe a security expert would be smart enough to not leave a laptop unattended, much less leave it overnight in his car.

          Unless said expert deliberately set it up as a honey pot so he could track down the thief and boast online about how good he is at catching thieves.

        • and you make mistakes when you're tired. Finish off a 12 hour shift and then get stuck in traffic for 2 hours because of a pile up on the freeway? Yeah, you're gonna do dumb stuff.
    • Also you could had called the police with proof of your laptop being stolen. Being a laptop plus the info on it it could be considered grand theft.

    • In many cases, it is better to encrypt files for each account separately, rather than full-disk encryption. This is partly because most full-disk encryption sucks in one of two ways. (Google "ecb penguin" for an example.)

      Along with avoiding technical problems with full-disk encryption modes, this improves security because the user of one account can't access files owned (and encrypted) by another account. You can even have a "guest" account for a houseguest to use, and guest can't access your files.

      Since yo

    • by RevDisk ( 740008 )
      I have a number of utility laptops that I use for random stuff. Most of them are not encrypted. They tend to be old laptops I got from work or other places, and saved from the bin. Never underestimate the usefulness of a laptop with an actual serial port. For some reason, USB serial dongles tend to be twitchy. A lot of them are too slow for full disk encryption. And honestly, don't care if even the NSA got their hands on them. I'd barely care if they were stolen.

      Admittedly not everyone has a crate of obs
    • by camg188 ( 932324 )
      Computer security expert leaves laptop in car overnight. Sounds more like a computer security amateur.
    • by Osgeld ( 1900440 )

      + they left it in a car, so yes either bait or retard

      I lean towards retard

    • How would he find his laptop if he did that? The thief would have to wipe the device before resale/use.

      That said, his measures weren't very effective (unless I misunderstood the unread article). I have my devices attempt to open connections to address ranges controlled by one of my work firewalls, so at least I know the IP.

    • And if he had put an OS login password on it, the thief would have just given it to someone to wipe down. He would still haven't gotten his laptop back, and he would never have known who stole it.

      At least mobile phone passwords, the phone can still receive calls, so you can call whoever "found" it and offer a small reward for it's return.

  • 'computer expert'. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by queazocotal ( 915608 ) on Sunday January 22, 2017 @04:57AM (#53714377)

    In general, the various 'identity theft' type laws which make it illegal to access others accounts don't have exceptions because it's a stolen computer.

    • by dwywit ( 1109409 ) on Sunday January 22, 2017 @05:20AM (#53714423)

      So who brings the criminal suit for identity theft? The thief would have to swear out a complaint in which she admits theft - or that fact would come out in court. Even if hard evidence of identiy theft was available, a half-decent lawyer would have the case dismissed after a chat to the thief via the prosecutor: "If you proceed with this case, you'll face criminal and civil proceedings for theft, loss of income, etc, etc, etc. You'll be so in debt with legal bills, and a criminal conviction will be your legacy. Do you really want to proceed?"

      • by jbolden ( 176878 )

        It doesn't have to be a suit. There are federal laws. Once the process starts the federal attorney can bring the charges, getting both the thief (though that's only a state charge) and the revenge seeker.

      • The crime of theft is nothing compared to reputational damage. We're talking a several hundred dollar fine vs a many 10s of thousands of dollar lawsuit here. The odds favour the thief in the US legal system.... By a really large margin.

    • In general, the various 'identity theft' type laws which make it illegal to access others accounts don't have exceptions because it's a stolen computer.

      I agree, and think the smartest thing to do is gather the info on thief and report it to the police. IANAL, but I would guess there is no presumption of privacy if you are using a stolen laptop and that the owner has a right to access their machine remotely; a similar situation might be you steal my car and i see it, use a key to drive off and then go through your wallet and papers which were left in the car. I can turn that over to the police but not use your credit card to charge something or post picture

    • In general, the various 'identity theft' type laws which make it illegal to access others accounts don't have exceptions because it's a stolen computer.

      That doesn't necessarily mean the courts wouldn't create an exception based on some "no expectation of privacy" principle. Common law can be fun.

    • In general, the various 'identity theft' type laws which make it illegal to access others accounts don't have exceptions because it's a stolen computer.

      True, but look up the "clean hands doctrine". Criminals can't use the courts to get relief.

  • Oxymoron (Score:4, Insightful)

    by davester666 ( 731373 ) on Sunday January 22, 2017 @04:59AM (#53714383) Journal

    A "computer security expert" would not leave their laptop in their car overnight.

    • Not only that, he left his car unlocked.

      Needless to say, Gale probably won't be leaving his car unlocked again - especially with high-priced items in plain view of thieves.

      I can appreciate that in an ideal society, people wouldn't steal, and you should be able to leave your valuables unsecured and in plain sight. However, this man was a victim of a crime that he could have easily prevented.

      An acquaintance of mine performed the same mistake as this man. He left his laptop visible in the back seat of his unlocked car, which he knew was unlocked, because he thought it should be safe there. The next morning the laptop was gone, and

  • imho (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 22, 2017 @05:03AM (#53714393)

    This is a dickish move. What if the thief sold the computer and someone else is new the new owner who actually paid for the computer? Vigilantism is bad.

    • Re:imho (Score:5, Informative)

      by gnasher719 ( 869701 ) on Sunday January 22, 2017 @10:07AM (#53715005)

      This is a dickish move. What if the thief sold the computer and someone else is new the new owner who actually paid for the computer? Vigilantism is bad.

      Someone else is _not_ the new owner. You can't become the owner of a laptop by buying it from a thief. If you knew it was stolen you are a criminal buying stolen goods. If you didn't know you are an idiot who will be parted from his money.

      The guy is still the _owner_ of the laptop and can do what he can to recover the stolen laptop from whoever has it now.

    • This is a dickish move. What if the thief sold the computer and someone else is new the new owner who actually paid for the computer? Vigilantism is bad.

      This was the only 'dickish' move I saw:

      He also posted her info to a number of Facebook groups, which spooked the thief enough to not only delete her Facebook account, but also her listed phone numbers.

      He should not have done that bit. But the rest of it--sending texts to her phone numbers, calling the friend (âoeI called one of them and told her the thief was on a stolen laptop and told her Iâ(TM)d give her the opportunity to return it.â), and sending all of the information to the police--are all entirely reasonable.

      We don't even know the timescales involved here. If this login happened mere hours after the theft, it's reasonable to assume the thie

    • There is no new owner, there is only a different person in possession of stolen property. It doesn't matter if the buyer doesn't know it's stolen.

  • I'm going to bet he was using chrome remote desktop or some such. That's not "security software". Jeez, this reeks of incompetence if he's a "security expert".

    Real remote monitoring software for these purposes would silently mirror the screen on a remote system and not ask for permission. "The original owner is attempting to connect to this laptop. [A]ccept or [D]eny?

  • by StickyKeys ( 2825659 ) on Sunday January 22, 2017 @05:13AM (#53714407)
    More likely is that the laptop got converted for cash at a pawn shop and later bought in good faith, which means he's humiliated a poor girl who had nothing to do with the theft.
    • More likely is that the laptop got converted for cash at a pawn shop and later bought in good faith, which means he's humiliated a poor girl who had nothing to do with the theft.

      In which case the pawn shop owner would be in trouble. Many locales have laws to make it harder to fence stolen property; if she bought it off of Craig's List cheap it would be hard to make a good faith argument.

      • Maybe the laptop was like two years old already, which makes it rather low value in the second hand market, like 10-20% of the new value. Thief lists it at the low end of normal prices for such laptops, makes a quick sale, and for the buyer the good faith argument is easy enough to defend.

    • More likely is that the laptop got converted for cash at a pawn shop and later bought in good faith, which means he's humiliated a poor girl who had nothing to do with the theft.

      Without knowing the time scales involved, that seems very unlikely. Unless he waited weeks to do this.

      Also, pretty sure all the savvy thieves use Craigslist these days, not pawn shops. But either way, the chances of a buyer pouncing very quickly is pretty low unless he was selling at a very steep discount.

      The "more likely" claim really makes me pause.... why would you say this? Does this have something to do with the alleged thief being female?

    • by grep -v '.*' * ( 780312 ) on Sunday January 22, 2017 @02:16PM (#53716049)

      which means he's humiliated a poor girl who had nothing to do with the theft.

      Which means it should be easy enough for her to prove that to the cops. "Here's the receipt -- go see who sold it to the shop to begin with."

      She might be the poor girl, she might be the thief. In any case she's in possession of a stolen computer. I wouldn't stop to stay "Excuse me , miss, you happen to be operating a computer of mine that has gone missing. Perhaps you would be so good as to inform me how you are in possession of such a thing?"

      My first reaction would be she's the actual thief as well, which may easily NOT be correct. On the other hand she physically has a random computer which I *CAN* produce a receipt and a serial number for.

      Possession may be 9/10 of the law, but not when it can call home and tattle.

  • dox her already.

  • dude (Score:5, Funny)

    by Noah Haders ( 3621429 ) on Sunday January 22, 2017 @05:22AM (#53714429)

    > In 2008 Slashdot ran a similar story, where it took several weeks of remote monitoring before a laptop thief revealed his identity. (The victim complained that "It was kind of frustrating because he was mostly using it to watch porn.")

    I like thought of a dude watching another dude endlessly watch porn, and being like, why can't you say your name!!!

  • by 93 Escort Wagon ( 326346 ) on Sunday January 22, 2017 @05:25AM (#53714433)

    - Why did this "expert" leave his laptop in his car?
    - Why was this "expert"'s laptop not encrypted?
    - Why does this "expert" assume the woman in possession of his laptop is the thief... or that she even knows the laptop was stolen?

    • by epine ( 68316 )

      Why did this "expert" leave his laptop in his car?

      You've never parked your car overnight A) at a job site (last minute state of emergency) or B) in front of a woman's house, one you don't yet know all that well?

      Possible answer is that he has a life.

  • Can backfire (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 22, 2017 @05:26AM (#53714435)

    What happened in a similar case in my country - the thief successfully sued the geek for damage to his reputation, and was awarded a compensation an order of magnitude higher than what was the value of the laptop.

    • What happened in a similar case in my country - the thief successfully sued the geek for damage to his reputation, and was awarded a compensation an order of magnitude higher than what was the value of the laptop.

      So what you're saying is that after the thief paid his lawyer, he ended up losing 10 orders of magnitude more than the compensation he was awarded. Because a lawyer is going to charge 10,000 to win a 1000 award over a 100 laptop.

      • Opps - an order of magnitude more than he was awarded, and 2 orders of magnitude more than the value of the laptop. Sorry about that, chief.
  • How do I hire this guy, he sounds like a real security genius /s

  • Joke's on you (Score:4, Informative)

    by allo ( 1728082 ) on Sunday January 22, 2017 @07:41AM (#53714649)

    Even when the laptop is stolen, "hacking" the thiefs facebook account and monitoring the computer usage of other people (without some work contract allowing this) is a crime.

    • Even when the laptop is stolen, "hacking" the thiefs facebook account and monitoring the computer usage of other people (without some work contract allowing this) is a crime.

      Not necessarily. They still own the computer so there is no unauthorized access to the computer; just don't then use information gleaned to login to the account from another machine. The problem is geeks then think it's cool and OK to use the information to strike back, at which point they cross the line into criminal behavior. Real world rules still apply.

      • by allo ( 1728082 )

        It's a bit complicated depending on what and how it is done and what the intention is. For example if somebody checks his e-mails on your pc, that's no argument that you may log his password. Even when it's your pc.

    • Even when the laptop is stolen, "hacking" the thiefs facebook account and monitoring the computer usage of other people (without some work contract allowing this) is a crime.

      Citation needed.

      Even if the text of a law supports that, I suspect that the courts would be eager to apply some red letter duct tape that would specify that no one has a reasonable expectation of privacy whilst using a stolen laptop.

      He didn't "hack the account" as far as I could tell, by the way. It sounded more like a remote desktop thing.

  • Wow. Some obviously clueless thief manages to log in into his computer without re-installation? Doesn't he use LUKS/Bitlocker?

    My Laptops are encrypted. I dont plan to change that for the slim change of catching a hardware thief by installing a tracking SW, which requires the OS to boot up unencrypted.

  • What he did to the alleged thief looks like it's illegal to me.
    Hopefully the 'geek' will be tried and condemned for his spying, invasion of privacy, blackmailing and identity theft.

  • by geekmux ( 1040042 ) on Sunday January 22, 2017 @10:58AM (#53715173)

    "I'm realistic. I'm not going to see that computer again..."

    The victim stated he went through her Facebook profile when she "left the room", implying he might have also had remote control of the camera. Is a picture of her face along with an entire Facebook profile and IP address somehow not enough gift-wrapped evidence to provide to the authorities for them to execute a simple knock on a fucking door to recover stolen property? What the hell...

  • by mi ( 197448 ) <slashdot-2016q1@virtual-estates.net> on Sunday January 22, 2017 @11:57AM (#53715407) Homepage Journal

    "I'm realistic. I'm not going to see that computer again"

    From what anecdotal evidence I have myself, he is right. Even if police do find the asshole-thief and take the laptop from him, the victim is not going to receive it. They'll keep it "for the duration of the investigation" and then it might just "disappear" from the evidence room.

    And the next asshole-thief (this one with a police ID) will be smart enough to wipe it so as not get caught the same way. And, even if he does not, calling police again will not be fruitful — police protect their own, "because no one else would".

    Oh, and the original thief will not do any actual time either (much less have his hand chopped-off) — unless, maybe, this is his third offense in a "three strikes" state.

    While it may seem petty, theft costs humanity immensely — if you count the things we all have to do to keep it under control...

  • If you had remote access, you should have put BitLocker on it, or encrypted it with your Open OS version.

    Or installed a dialler to call 911 repeatedly from the laptop. Eventually the police will go to their house and find oh wow, there's lots of stolen property here.

  • by timholman ( 71886 ) on Sunday January 22, 2017 @12:56PM (#53715671)

    The owner of the laptop missed his opportunity to recover his property by trying to publicly shame the woman into returning it. That was a counterproductive waste of time. She could just claim she bought it from someone, and how could he, or the police, prove otherwise?

    Anti-theft software should be designed to allow the thief to use the laptop on a guest account, while password protecting your personal account. You want the thief to use the laptop. Locking it remotely will only ensure that it is immediately disposed of, or sold for parts.

    So, assume your laptop is stolen and you've activated the remote tracking software: immediately call the police and file a report. The police won't do a thing unless you take that first step. Next, start collecting data on the thief: home address, work/school address, phone numbers, images of the thief using it, etc. Organize all of that data into a folder and take it, along with a copy of your police report, to the local police station. Show them that you know exactly who has the laptop, that person's address, the location of the laptop, etc. Also point out that if this person was the thief, there is an excellent chance that additional stolen property will be found at their residence.

    The police now have the justification they need to go knock on that person's door, or possibly get a search warrant. Granted, the person who has it may still claim it was purchased from some third party, but when police are standing in someone's home, showing them pictures of their own faces taken through the laptop camera, and saying, "Give us the laptop now, or we'll come back with a search warrant", the chances are excellent that it will be handed over.

    No one may be prosecuted, but you'll at least have your property back. Of course, this scenario presumes that the police care enough to follow through with the information you provide. In larger cities, they may not bother, but in smaller towns and rural areas, they may be very happy to assist when you present all the evidence they need on a silver platter.

  • by nightfire-unique ( 253895 ) on Sunday January 22, 2017 @01:11PM (#53715741)

    Virtually every top comment is a victim-blaming shitfest.

    "Ooooh CRIME he's a hacker! Arrest the victim!"

    "Every security expert encrypts every piece of technology they own regardless of circumstances! It's his own fault!"

    ".. and they ALWAYS take every possession with them everywhere they go, and never lock anything in their vehicle, because they're infallible! Clearly he's not an expert!"

    "That poor thief. ;("

    Ugh.

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