How Una Got Her Stolen Laptop Back

By | July 7th, 2016

Lost Laptop World Map

Reading Peter’s post on getting your data ready for vacation travels, reminded me of a story we recently received from a Backblaze customer. Una’s laptop was stolen and then traveled the over multiple continents over the next year. Here’s Una’s story, in her own words, on how she got her laptop back. Enjoy.

Pulse Incident Number 10028192
(or: How Playing Computer Games Can Help You In Adulthood)

One day when I was eleven, my father arrived home with an object that looked like a briefcase made out of beige plastic. Upon lifting it, one realized it had the weight of, oh, around two elephants. It was an Ericsson ‘portable’ computer, one of the earliest prototypes of laptop. All my classmates had really cool and fashionable computer game consoles with amazing names like “Atari” and “Commodore”, beautifully vibrant colour displays, and joysticks. Our Ericsson had a display with two colours (orange and … dark orange), it used floppy discs that were actually floppy (remember those?), ran on DOS and had no hard drive (you had to load the operating system every single time you turned on the computer. Took around 10 minutes). I dearly loved this machine, however, and played each of the 6 games on it incessantly. One of these was “Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?” an educational game where a detective has to chase an archvillain around the world, using geographical and cultural references as clues to get to the next destination. Fast forward twenty years and…

It’s June 2013, I’m thirty years old, and I still love laptops. I live in Galway, Ireland; I’m a self-employed musician who works in a non-profit music school so the cash is tight, but I’ve splashed out on a Macbook Pro and I LOVE IT. I’m on a flight from Dublin to Dubai with a transfer in Turkey. I talk to the guy next to me, who has an Australian accent and mentions he’s going to Asia to research natural energy. A total hippy, I’m interested; we chat until the convo dwindles, I do some work on my laptop, and then I fall asleep.

At 11pm the plane lands in Turkey and we’re called off to transfer to a different flight. Groggy, I pick up my stuff and stumble down the stairs onto the tarmac. In the half-light beside the plane, in the queue for the bus to the terminal, I suddenly realize that I don’t have my laptop in my bag. Panicking, I immediately seek out the nearest staff member. “Please! I’ve left my laptop on the plane – I have to go back and get it!”

The guy says: “No. It’s not allowed. You must get on the bus, madam. The cabin crew will find it and put it in “Lost and Found” and send it to you.” I protest but I can tell he’s immovable. So I get on the bus, go into the terminal, get on another plane and fly to Dubai. The second I land I ring Turkish Air to confirm they’ve found my laptop. They haven’t. I pretty much stalk Turkish Air for the next two weeks to see if the laptop turns up, but to no avail. I travel back via the same airport (Ataturk International), and go around all three Lost and Found offices in the airport, but my laptop isn’t there amongst the hundreds of Kindles and iPads. I don’t understand.

As time drags on, the laptop doesn’t turn up. I report the theft in my local Garda station. The young Garda on duty is really lovely to me and gives me lots of empathy, but the fact that the laptop was stolen in airspace, in a foreign, non-EU country, does not bode well. I continue to stalk Turkish Airlines; they continue to stonewall me, so I get in touch with the Turkish Department for Consumer Affairs. I find a champion amongst them called Ece, who contacts Turkish Airlines and pleads on my behalf. Unfortunately they seem to have more stone walls in Turkey than there are in the entire of Co. Galway, and his pleas fall on deaf ears. Ece advises me I’ll have to bring Turkish Airlines to court to get any compensation, which I suspect will cost more time and money than the laptop is realistically worth. In a firstworld way, I’m devastated – this object was a massive financial outlay for me, a really valuable tool for my work. I try to appreciate the good things – Ece and the Garda Sharon have done their absolute best to help me, my pal Jerry has loaned me a laptop to tide me over the interim – and then I suck it up, say goodbye to the last of my savings, and buy a new computer.

I start installing the applications and files I need for my business. I subscribe to an online backup service, Backblaze, whereby every time I’m online my files are uploaded to the cloud. I’m logging in to Backblaze to recover all my files when I see a button I’ve never noticed before labelled “Locate My Computer”. I catch a breath. Not even daring to hope, I click on it… and it tells me that Backblaze keeps a record of my computer’s location every time it’s online, and can give me the IP address my laptop has been using to get online. The records show my laptop has been online since the theft!! Not only that, but Backblaze has continued to back up files, so I can see all files the thief has created on my computer. My laptop has last been online in, of all the places, Thailand. And when I look at the new files saved on my computer, I find Word documents about solar power. It all clicks. It was the plane passenger beside me who had stolen my laptop, and he is so clueless he’s continued to use it under my login, not realizing this makes him trackable every time he connects to the internet.

I keep the ‘Locate My Computer” function turned on, so I’m consistently monitoring the thief’s whereabouts, and start the chapter of my life titled “The Sleep Deprivation and The Phonebill”. I try ringing the police service in Thailand (GMT +7 hours) multiple times. To say this is ineffective is an understatement; the language barrier is insurmountable. I contact the Irish embassy in Bangkok – oh, wait, that doesn’t exist. I try a consulate, who is lovely but has very limited powers, and while waiting for them to get back to me I email two Malaysian buddies asking them if they know anyone who can help me navigate the language barrier. I’m just put in touch with this lovely pal-of-a-pal called Tupps who’s going to help me when… I check Backblaze and find out that my laptop had started going online in East Timor. Bye bye, Thailand.

I’m so wrecked trying to communicate with the Thai bureaucracy I decide to play the waiting game for a while. I suspect East Timor will be even more of an international diplomacy challenge, so let’s see if the thief is going to stay there for a while before I attempt a move, right? I check Backblaze around once a week for a month, but then the thief stops all activity – I’m worried. I think he’s realized I can track him and has stopped using my login, or has just thrown the laptop away. Reason kicks in, and I begin to talk myself into stopping my crazy international stalking project. But then, when I least expect it, I strike informational GOLD. In December, the thief checks in for a flight from Bali to Perth and saves his online check-in to the computer desktop. I get his name, address, phone number, and email address, plus flight number and flight time and date.

I have numerous fantasies about my next move. How about I ring up the police in Australia, they immediately believe my story and do my every bidding, and then the thief is met at Arrivals by the police, put into handcuffs and marched immediately to jail? Or maybe I should somehow use the media to tell the truth about this guy’s behaviour and give him a good dose of public humiliation? Should I try my own version of restorative justice, contact the thief directly and appeal to his better nature? Or, the most tempting of all, should I get my Australian-dwelling cousin to call on him and bash his face in? … This last option, to be honest, is the outcome I want the most, but Emmett’s actually on the other side of the Australian continent, so it’s a big ask, not to mention the ever-so-slightly scary consequences for both Emmett and myself if we’re convicted… ! (And, my conscience cries weakly from the depths, it’s just the teensiest bit immoral.) Christmas is nuts, and I’m just so torn and ignorant about course of action to take I … do nothing.

One morning in the grey light of early February I finally decide what to do. Although it’s the longest shot in the history of long shots, I will ring the Australian police force about a laptop belonging to a girl from the other side of the world, which was stolen in airspace, in yet another country in the world. I use Google to figure out the nearest Australian police station to the thief’s address. I set my alarm for 4am Irish time, I ring Rockhampton Station, Queensland, and explain the situation to a lovely lady called Danielle. Danielle is very kind and understanding but, unsurprisingly, doesn’t hold out much hope that they can do anything. I’m not Australian, the crime didn’t happen in Australia, there’s questions of jurisdiction, etc. etc. I follow up, out of sheer irrational compulsion rather than with the real hope of an answer, with an email 6 weeks later. There’s no response. I finally admit to myself the laptop is gone. Ever since he’s gone to Australia the thief has copped on and stopped using my login, anyway. I unsubscribe my stolen laptop from Backblaze and try to console myself with the thought that at least I did my best.

And then, completely out of the blue, on May 28th 2014, I get an email from a Senior Constable called Kain Brown. Kain tells me that he has executed a search warrant at a residence in Rockhampton and has my laptop!! He has found it!!! I am stunned. He quickly gets to brass tacks and explains my two options: I can press charges, but it’s extremely unlikely to result in a conviction, and even if it did, the thief would probably only be charged with a $200 fine – and in this situation, it could take years to get my laptop back. If I don’t press charges, the laptop will be kept for 3 months as unclaimed property, and then returned to me. It’s a no-brainer; I decide not to press charges. I wait, and wait, and three months later, on the 22nd September 2014, I get an email from Kain telling me that he can finally release the laptop to me.

Naively, I think my tale is at the “Happy Ever After” stage. I dance a jig around the kitchen table, and read my subsequent email from a “Property Officer” of Rockhampton Station, John Broszat. He has researched how to send the laptop back to me … and my jig is suddenly halted. My particular model of laptop has a lithium battery built into the casing which can only be removed by an expert, and it’s illegal to transport a lithium battery by air freight. So the only option for getting the laptop back, whole and functioning, is via “Sea Mail” – which takes three to four months to get to Ireland. This blows my mind. I can’t quite believe that in this day and age, we can send people to space, a media file across the world in an instant, but that transporting a physical object from one side of the globe to another still takes … a third of a year! It’s been almost a year and a half since my laptop was stolen. I shudder to think of what will happen on its final journey via Sea Mail – knowing my luck, the ship will probably be blown off course and it’ll arrive in the Bahamas.

Fortunately, John is empathetic, and willing to think outside the box. Do I know anyone who will be travelling from Australia to Ireland via plane who would take my laptop in their hand luggage? Well, there’s one tiny silver lining to the recession: half of Craughwell village has a child living in Australia. I ask around on Facebook and find out that my neighbour’s daughter is living in Australia and coming home for Christmas. John Broszat is wonderfully cooperative and mails my laptop to Maroubra Police Station for collection by the gorgeous Laura Gibbons. Laura collects it and brings it home in her flight hand luggage, and finally, FINALLY, on the 23rd of December 2014, 19 months after it’s been stolen, I get my hands on my precious laptop again.

I gingerly take the laptop out of the fashionable paper carrier bag in which Laura has transported it. I set the laptop on the table, and examine it. The casing is slightly more dented than it was, but except for that it’s in one piece. Hoping against hope, I open up the screen, press the ‘on’ button and… the lights flash and the computer turns on!!! The casing is dented, there’s a couple of insalubrious pictures on the hard drive I won’t mention, but it has been dragged from Turkey to Thailand to East Timor to Indonesia to Australia, and IT STILL WORKS. It even still has the original charger accompanying it. Still in shock that this machine is on, I begin to go through the hard drive. Of course, it’s radically different – the thief has deleted all my files, changed the display picture, downloaded his own files and applications. I’m curious: What sort of person steals other people’s laptops? How do they think, organize their lives, what’s going through their minds? I’ve seen most of the thief’s files before from stalking him via the Backblaze back-up service, and they’re not particularly interesting or informative about the guy on a personal level. But then I see a file I haven’t seen before, “ free ebook.pdf ”. I click on it, and it opens. I shake my head in disbelief. The one new file that the thief has downloaded onto my computer is the book “How To Win Friends And Influence People”.

A few weeks later, a new friend and I kiss for the first time. He’s a graphic designer from London. Five months later, he moves over to Ireland to be with me. We’re talking about what stuff he needs to bring when he’s moving and he says “I’m really worried; my desktop computer is huge. I mean, I have no idea how I’m going to bring it over.” Smiling, I say “I have a spare laptop that might suit you…”

[Editor: The moral of the story is make sure your data is backed up before you go on vacation.]

Andy Klein

Andy Klein

Director of Product Marketing at Backblaze
Andy has 20+ years experience in technology marketing. He has shared his expertise in computer security and data backup at the Federal Trade Commission, Rootstech, RSA and over 100 other events. His current passion is to get everyone to back up their data before it's too late.
Category:  Backblaze Bits · Backing Up
  • MadMonk67

    Una, Una, Una, OMG girl, why haven’t you posted the thief’s personal data all over the Internet yet?

  • le chat

    Great story. Amazing how nobody in a year looked at the contents of the Mac, let alone wiped it clean.

  • HA

    cool