This month, Sean Power, a Canadian writer, lost his computer in New York. Rather than rage in frustration and then hurry over to the Apple Store to buy a new laptop, Power waited.
A week later, his patience paid off. An e-mail alert notified him that someone was using his lost laptop. Through Prey, anti-theft software he had installed on his computer, Power could log on remotely and take photographs of what appeared on the screen. Power captured an image of a man on a video call and tracked his location to a restaurant in SoHo. Then, he tweeted the information out.
Two New York social connections from Power’s Twitter feed headed to SoHo and confronted the man, who explained that he had found the computer left behind at a table in the restaurant he co-owned. The man then handed the laptop over to Power’s friends.
Power tracked the whole adventure on Twitter, much to the delight of his followers, who felt swept up in the real-life drama. Some questioned whether the whole thing was a huge ruse for the Prey program, but it was not. In a phone call to the restaurant, the man confirmed what Power reported on his Twitter feed: He found the computer and thought, “Finders, keepers.”
The success story is not singular. Prey often tweets out when the program helps track down thieves. And it is not the only rescue program that has found stolen computers. In March, after someone stole Massachusetts college student Mark Bao’s computer, he remotely accessed the computer’s files with Backblaze software. It’s not typically used as anti-theft protection but rather to back up old files. Still, it helped Bao, 18, when the man with his laptop, perhaps gleeful over his new gadget, recorded a video of himself dancing to a song called “Make It Rain.” Bao was able to remotely access the stored files on the computer and upload the video on to YouTube. He titled it “Don’t steal computers belonging to people who know how to use computers.” The video went viral and the alleged culprit eventually turned himself in to the Bentley University campus police and returned the computer.
Power, who had not even filed a police report before leaving New York, did not feel entirely comfortable with the vigilante route he and his friends took. “This is a story that could have turned ugly,” he wrote on Twitter.
Ken Westin, chief executive of GadgetTrak, another anti-theft program, agrees. “We have actually had a number of recoveries where organized crime was involved, and some of these people are pretty scary,” he said. “Luckily nobody was hurt in this case.”
All of the programs are easy to install and take up little space on a hard drive. Prey can be used on a free account, but a $5-a-month upgrade to a Pro account covers three devices and will send you automatic messages anytime a change in hardware is detected. You can also lock the computer down to prevent unauthorized access. GadgetTrak, which costs $35 a year, allows users to remotely turn on built-in cameras and take photographs, not just screen shots.Find My iPhone, for Apple products, turns on a GPS sensor to track an iPhone or iPad. When located, you can send a message to the device or wipe its content clean.
Only about 3 percent of lost laptops are recovered, Prey officials say, so it’s smart to save files in a program such as Backblaze or Dropbox. Even though Power got his laptop back, the man who used it wiped the hard drive clean, but thanks to Dropbox, Power was able to restore his work.
A few days after he was reunited with his lost laptop, Power lamented, “Not sure what to do with the flood of people sending me details / serial numbers of their stolen laptops in hopes that I can help them.” A friend wrote back: “Send them time machine and link to Prey Project.”