Thursday, February 26, 2004

Our house was burglarized last week sometime within a two-hour window from the time I left and Susana came home. While I’ve been the victim of nearly every other type of property crime—four cars broken into, lawnmowers, grills and bicycles stolen—this one is the most disturbing. It’s not that we had much that the bad guys could make away with, it’s the thought of being home when someone kicks down the door.

Feelings of, “we’re moving out of this house,” quickly turned to, “were not going to let this happen again,” and thoughts of midieval booby traps and razor wire danced in my head. We settled on more practical measures—doors have been reinforced, a security system is nearly place, and sadly, we now have less that a burglar would want. The most valuable item was a laptop. Fortunately I keep all my data on a file server (if that had been stolen, good lord…)

When I came upstairs that night and saw the LEDs on the wireless hub, I got to wondering if there was some way to see if the burglar was in range and still using the connection. Chances were slim that it was someone living within 500ft of our house since I know and trust most of my immediate neighbors. I’m not enough of a hacker to figure that out anyway. Then it occurred to me what I should have done.

If I had set my browser to automatically load my homepage with a secret code, say,, every time it started up, I could trace my way back to the thief’s physical location. I could wait until that code appeared in my site’s logs, trace their IP address and get a subpoena for their ISP to provide the name and address of the user connecting via that IP address at that particular time. The computer would, in effect, send a beacon back to its owner after being stolen.

I don’t know how difficult it would be to carry out the legal work (proving to authorities that your method is 99.9% likely to find the right person), and may require a lawyer, but the plan seems like it could catch most crooks. What amateur burglar—someone desperate enough to risk time behind bars, or in this country, the wrath of an armed homeowner—is going to be keen enough to go to the trouble of reformatting your laptop’s harddrive before its very first use?

Other homing pigeon software could be made to automatically connect to a web site or web service every time it finds a connection to the Internet, like a lo-jack for your laptop (lapjack?), even before the user is prompted for a password (my plan above would require no username/password login). There’s a good chance the laptop would be in someone else’s hands by the time it actually connected to the Internet, but then you’d at least get the computer back, and have a starting point in which to catch the thief, or catch someone trafficking in stolen goods.


by rak » Feb 26, 2004 1:04 PM

sorry to hear of your loss. it takes a while for that 'violated' feeling to pass.

a friend got his ibook and powerbook back with the Lapcop software/service:

your idea is great, free and simple.


by Dave » Feb 28, 2004 7:08 AM

This is something to think about. I am just about to move to an apartment where I'm not convinced of the security.

"If I had set my browser to automatically load my homepage with a secret code, say,, every time it started up,"

Oh, I see - the sceret code just ensures you know it's *your* system making the connection, not some other user.

Lapcop sounds intriguing. Is there a service for PCs?


by Dave Campbell » Feb 28, 2004 10:04 AM

"Lapcop sounds intriguing. Is there a service for PCs?"

Do thieves even bother stealing those?



by asdf_101 » Feb 28, 2004 11:16 AM

Innovative, but not enough.

This is like one of those things that works the first time round, if at all.

1. It doesn't take much to stop a PC from accessing a preset start page.

2. Most stolen pieces almost always have their existing software formatted off the hdd and a clean new system installed simply for the same reason --> to defeat any track-back conundrums you might have running on that unit.


by Chris Millward » Feb 28, 2004 11:56 AM

Would it be possible to write a startup script to openup a lynx browser connection your homesite in such a manner and send the passcode var that way? Run in the background and with no visible sign of a connection being made? Probably easier on Macs running OSX due to the *nix based system, but probably do-able on a PC as well... That way its not reliant on the theif using your browser.


by joe » Feb 28, 2004 2:59 PM

I think you'll find the app Timbuktu will do exactly what you want, and has actually been used successfully by someone wanting to trace their laptop. It's a remote access program that lets you control the computer remotely; I believe it can even be set up such that the user doesn't even know it's operational. On a PC, might fulfil a similar function.


by Phil » Mar 1, 2004 8:26 AM

Here's the story about recovering a Mac using Timbuktu:


by Fargoboy » Mar 1, 2004 11:41 AM

Try MacPhoneHome ( It supposedly works even after a low-level format.

Otherwise, you could make a UNIX shell script that would automatically send vital information to an email address or server log file at specified increments using CRON. This is something that would be difficult for even advanced users to detect, but would be twarted by a hard drive format. You can even have it send a screenshot of what the thief is up to (

I've had PowerMacs towers for years and just got my first PowerBook, so I've been looking for theft recovery solution lately.


by StickyC » Mar 1, 2004 11:46 AM

What about using one of the various dynamic DNS scripts and letting the device publish it's IP to (for instance) The scripts typically run in the background and only update if the machine's IP address changes. I believe there are a few that will report the IP of the upstream NAT box (if present), rather than the loptops DHCP'd address.

This is all predicated that the thief will plug the laptop into the net or fire it up near an open WiFi AP.


by Nicholas Barnard » Mar 1, 2004 8:40 PM

Not to steer it off subject but there is another solution to this problem. Assume that at some point the PC might get stolen. So purchase a insurance policy on it, and do regular backups. (which you already do already right?)

So you won't get the exact computer back, but you'll get a computer, and you don't have to worry about all these whatifs...

Oh one spot -- no I'm not paid by them.. $1,150 of coverage is only $69/year no deductible


by Lenny Domnitser » Mar 3, 2004 10:03 AM

On a Unix system your website can be pinged by wget before X is even started.


by JC » Mar 9, 2004 5:49 AM

"Most stolen pieces almost always have their existing software formatted off the hdd and a clean new system installed simply for the same reason --> to defeat any track-back conundrums you might have running on that unit."

Grab a copy of Deep Freeze ( and run it on your PC. You can 'thaw' it when you need to install software or whatever, but without the password to thaw it, it's safe from everything short of physically removing the hard drive and reformatting it as a second drive on another system.

Basically, you can reformat the hard drive, and when you restart the computer, it's back precisely the way it was when it was "frozen"

Good insurance against viruses and MS hotfixes, either. If the virus infects you, reboot and it's gone. If the hotfix hoses something, reboot and it's gone (and if not, boot 'thawed' and install it for real)


by ace » Mar 10, 2004 6:53 AM

I recommend you start checking immediately with your local used computer stores. Several of the shops where I live will accept merchandise with few or no questions asked as long as it doesn't have any obvious signs of being stolen. They're also not under the same restrictions as pawn shops, since it's an actual sale and not a loan.


by Simon » Apr 29, 2004 7:34 AM


I found some usefull hints to protect the laptop in advance... However, my laptop is allready stolen from the train. It was only 2 months old... I still have the serial number, but nothing else. is there a possibilty to trach a computer only having this number? Our should I give up all hope?


by visitor » May 6, 2004 4:06 AM

Nope. Burglars who kick down doors don't format discs!
They take the laptop to the nearest pawnshop/2nd hand place and sell it.
and then buy drugs.
you won't catch burglars that way.


by Mike » May 27, 2004 3:50 PM

You might want to check out Computrace PRO

It "phones" home via Modem and TCP/IP.

Plus, a simple Format and reinstall won't get rid of it. :-)

Down side, it's a yearly fee for them to keep monitering. I figure 3 years is worth it, then you wouldn't want the laptop back.


by nft » May 27, 2004 9:09 PM

I read this story over over three times, and it doesn't say anywhere that the laptop was the item that was stolen. It seems to be assumed, but it doesn't specifically say that a laptop was stolen.

I also find it hard to believe that these products you people are recommending would still work after a disk format. Unless they overwrite code in the bios, which I find highly unlikely, where would the programs live and execute from other than the harddrive? Right? RIGHT!?! : )




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