How I Cyber-Sleuthed to Retrieve My Stolen Laptop

I take really long showers, the kind of shower that single-handedly depletes my hot-water heater. I know it's terribly selfish, from an environmental standpoint, but a shower for me is more than a perfunctory morning ritual. The shower is my think tank. I puzzle through my problems and have colossal breakthroughs. I write rough drafts of stories in my head, and give stirring vocal performances that the world will sadly never hear. But a little under two months ago, it's where I got my calling to become a cyberdetective.

On a recent Saturday morning, during a shower, I heard a loud bang, which I assumed came from the neighbors who had recently moved in upstairs. But when I got out of the shower and went into my living room, my front door was open. Splinters of the doorframe were on the floor, and half of a boot print was visible just above the lock. Then I looked around inside. My PlayStation 3 and Wii were gone, along with my iPod and my laptop. My apartment had been burglarized, in broad daylight, with me inside, totally oblivious.

Apart from taking my statement and filing the report, there wasn't a whole lot the police could do. The reason this type of crime is committed is that the risk of getting caught is not nearly as high as it should be. Normally, this would have been the point at which I moved through the stages of grief, replaced my stuff and went on with my life.

But it came to me, in the shower of course, that I'd installed a remote-access program on my stolen laptop called LogMeIn. It allows users to access home computers from anywhere over a secure Internet connection. Once connected, users can transfer files between computers, print files from the remote computer to a local printer, even listen to music housed on the remote computer on local speakers. It's even possible to view and control the remote computer's desktop, as though you were sitting right in front of it. When I had my laptop, the program was merely a cute application that made my life a little easier. But after some goon swiped it, it became a digital bloodhound. Luckily, I had a desktop and an additional laptop to keep on eye on things. As long as the thief logged onto the Internet from my stolen computer, I could get the IP address he was accessing from, which might help me lead the police to my machine.

But that was all in theory. In order for any of that to work, the laptop's hard drive would have to remain intact. If the thief reformatted the drive, the program would disappear along with it. If the burglar did log on to the Net with it, he would have to do it from his house. If he only accessed it from Wi-Fi hotspots, his identity would be nearly impossible to track. And without solid information, a name or an address, there wouldn't be much to act on. But LogMeIn was my only hope, so I had to give it a shot.

For the days and weeks that followed, I signed in to see if my stolen laptop was connected to the Internet. To call the rate at which I did this obsessive doesn't accurately paint the picture. My first hit came less than 24 hours after the burglary took place. Already, the workstation name had been changed to his first name. I was livid. Every day or every other day, he would log in again and I'd collect a new IP address that I'd give to the detective assigned to my case.

But for too long the burglar was shy about using my laptop. He'd pop online here and there for a few minutes at most, then disappear. But after a while, he became emboldened, and so did I. He put photos of himself on the computer, and I downloaded them. He's a young guy, and handsome, too, so much so that I took to referring to him as the Adoraburglar. He uploaded his music onto it and I'd delete it off. It wasn't right. If anyone should be putzing around in front of that computer, it should be me. On April Fools' Day, I altered the photo of him that he'd set as his wallpaper to make it look like he had leprosy. If juvenile pranks were as good as my revenge was going to get, I was content to take that.

Finally, he gave me the opening I needed. The computer was signed on and he wasn't in front of it. I knew this because I took a chance and activated the built-in Webcam. I had been avoiding going this route because if I miscalculated, and he was in front of the screen, he'd be tipped off to my presence and could uninstall the program, or toss the laptop into a pond, for that matter. But after a month of being without it, I had come to peace with the idea that I might never get my stuff back, so I didn't have anything more to lose.

The Webcam started up, and I was looking inside a bedroom with rust-colored walls. The computer was facing the door, and from what I could tell, someone was lying in bed. People casually streamed in and out of the room. This act of voyeurism had a practical application. Once I knew no one was watching the screen, I could install programs on the computer that would help me find it. But I'd be lying if I said violating his privacy the way mine was violated didn't amuse me a little. I installed a keylogger, along with LoJack for Laptops. I watched nervously as the installation bars filled, hoping no one would come back to the screen and see what I was doing. It was like those scenes in movies where someone is hurriedly downloading a vital file from someone else's computer. For that moment, I was Sandra Bullock in "The Net."

A little over a week later, I had gathered enough information for the police to secure a search warrant, go to his house and retrieve my computer. The culprit wasn't home at the time. After bringing him in for questioning, the detective determined that they couldn't make a solid enough case. No one will be arrested, and I won't get any of my other items that were recovered, but getting the laptop provided some comfort, if perhaps of the cold variety. Truth be told, it was a little anticlimactic when the authorities returned my stolen computer. Having the laptop back wasn't as much fun as trying to get the laptop back, especially since the thief had deleted all my files.

Later, I got a card in the mail. It was signed by a bunch of my friends from work who had pitched in to get me a gift card from the Apple Store so I could replace my stolen iPod. It's honestly the nicest thing anyone's ever done for me. It occurred to me that I'd dwelled so much on material things that couldn't be replaced, I hadn't thought much about the things that couldn't be stolen, like good friends. Now, I take my new iPod to the bathroom and play it when I'm in the shower, where my musical performances have resumed (I'm on a big Roxy Music kick these days). My cyberdetective agency is closed for now, but would-be thieves should know: sometimes the victim is watching. When you least expect it.