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Wifi and Laptops Adds Up To Theft 329

Ant writes to mention an SFGate article about the increase in laptop theft in the world of ubiquitous wifi. From the article: "San Francisco police statistics show a disturbing trend. Just 18 laptop computer robberies were logged in 2004, but the figure jumped to 48 last year. There were 18 as of the end of March, a pace that could surpass 70 crimes this year. 'It's a changing culture, and crime is following it'"
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Wifi and Laptops Adds Up To Theft

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 10, 2006 @09:12PM (#15102804)
    in Milpitas (McCarthy Ranch) that thieves have been targeting. They do there during lunch and right after work, and do "smah and grab" style robberies on cars. The target: laptops in bags left unattended while the victim shops. Police have had to issue special alerts to shoppers.

    Put your laptop in the trunk when you leave your office, so that potential thieves don't see you place it there when you arrive at the mall.
  • Actually, (Score:2, Informative)

    by AWhiteFlame ( 928642 ) on Monday April 10, 2006 @09:21PM (#15102851) Homepage
    I'm thinking that its just because there are more laptops in general. Five years ago, laptops that I saw were not exactly mainstream, they were for business people, or people like me who can't leave a computer screen. (There are exceptions, as always, but.) Maybe because wifi wasn't as developed and people's main interest in computers is the internet, or maybe just because laptops are traditionally not as powerful as desktops. Now, it seems that when someone buys a computer, having a laptop is seen by most people like having a desktop but more. I don't blame them (see Macbook, yum), but I'm not sure that it's a culture change as they suggest. I think its probably the same ratio, there are just more people with them at all.

    Besides, did anyone read anything in the article about wifi causing the problem as the summary suggests? It just said that wireless hotspots are targets for laptop theft..well duh..laptop theft is going to occur where laptop users congregate..
  • Re:That's it? (Score:1, Informative)

    by drphil ( 320469 ) on Monday April 10, 2006 @09:34PM (#15102917)
    Dude, RTFA! not theft, but robbery. I'm sure in SF as in any major city there are plenty of laptop thefts. Robbery is a much bolder crime. The point is that WiFi hotspots are beacons flashing to all criminals bold enough to commit robbery that there are $1000-$2000 articles out in plain site - It's pretty tough to go to a hotspot location and conceal your laptop as you would a valuable when you are in a place where you might be robbed.
    I'll assume your "carrying a laptop = you are 5x less likely to get murdered" was a weak attempt a humor and you really aren't that innumerate.
  • Robbery != Theft. (Score:5, Informative)

    by vhold ( 175219 ) on Monday April 10, 2006 @09:46PM (#15102976)
    Once again I think the summarizer has confused the words and thus the discussion.

    The key word here is robbery, which means violence or intimidation being used to steal the property.

    I'm sure the number of laptop thefts is vastly higher. I worked at one company in the south of market area a few years back that was broken into several times and lost nearly 10 laptops alone.
  • PC Phone Home (Score:4, Informative)

    by Ungrounded Lightning ( 62228 ) on Monday April 10, 2006 @10:03PM (#15103045) Journal
    Seems to me there's a couple things one could do as a precaution:

      - Load an application that would have the laptop occasionally contact a server to see if it's been reported stolen, and if it has been, start reporting IP and MAC addresses it hears on WiFi in its vicinity, connections it has made for landline internet, perhaps taps on email going through it, and so on - and turn on the WiFi transmitter to broadcast the occasional "Here I Am" packet for direction finding.

      - Record the WiFi MAC address of the PC and sniff for it once it's stolen.

      - Record whatever info the PC will use to identify itself to Microsoft if/when somebody tries to register/authorize a fresh load of one of their products. (Here's where Microsoft could do the law abiding a service by reporting IP address and date/time to law enforcement when a stolen machine is reauthorized.)

    Sort of a software LoJack.

    If the theives don't eload the software the PC will "phone home" once the ultimate recipient starts running it, and it will be trackable. If they DO reload it the may call the cops down on themselves directly - and even if they do workarounds they still need to leave enough identity info on the machine for it to be usable - and forgeries in a global namespace also leave tracks.

    Wardrivers could do a service by reporting approximate locations of reported-as-stolen MAC addresses, as a starting point for a direction-finding bunny hunt. A public-service distributed application (in the same vein as SETI-at-home) could do the same - or could blanket userland with beacons of known location for a WiFi-only replacement for GPS that would let the phone-home software identify its own location (if it can't do that adequately via currently known WiFi beacons such as hotspots.)

    Recover a few (and identify and question the people who got them, with the threat of a "receiving stolen property" bust if they don't cooperate) and police can work back up the reselling chain to the thieves.

    And yes I'm QUITE aware of how such systems could be abused.

    Note that some of these can be done privately and in a moderately secure fashion. (For instance: open source phone-home app with strong encryption, using an owner-generated key to enable its reporting functions.)
  • Use your brain (Score:5, Informative)

    by Y-Crate ( 540566 ) on Monday April 10, 2006 @10:23PM (#15103151)
    I work at a large book retailer that has a well-established network of coffee bars outfitted with wireless hotspots.

    This company loves for customers to hang out for hours (and truth be told, many hang out all day and night several days a week) because they invariably buy more stuff the longer they stick around. The longer they stay, the more relaxed they become. When it comes time to get a new book, many will simply get up and walk away from their unattended laptop for anywhere between 1 and 20 minutes (don't get me started on table camping). Many days I've stood there during slow periods in amazement at the amount of very expensive hardware just left in the open with no one to watch it.

    It's inevitable that thieves will begin to exploit this as I've seen the same level of carelessness at similar retailers and sister stores in several states. There really isn't much I can do about it other than make friendly reminders when talking to customers - which risks offending the all-too-common customer with the over-inflated sense of self importance who finds any suggestion that they alter their behavior in any way (even if it will benefit them) as a severe insult.

    I try to keep an eye on things, even though it's not my responsibility, and I'm usually too busy to notice what's going on in the seating area unless there is a major disturbance (in other words: never).

    "Casual" laptop theft is going to increasingly be a problem, but not one that I fear to any great extent as in most cases it can be defeated with the help of common sense which itself is a rare commodity these days.
  • by PoitNarf ( 160194 ) on Monday April 10, 2006 @10:54PM (#15103290)
    Clever idea. Here's something a bit more advanced, but it costs money ofcourse. It's called Computrace and it's available on just about any laptop (they even have an OS X version). Their tracking agent attempts to make a call out to their servers every 24 hours. If it doesn't have an active internet connection, it will attempt to dial out through the modem if a phone line is connected. Newer Dells and IBMs actually store the tracking agent in the systems BIOS, so unless they plan on changing the motherboard out they're out of luck. We use this at my workplace quite extensively now, and have even used it to track "missing" laptops successfully. Check out their website for more info: []
  • by vlad_petric ( 94134 ) on Monday April 10, 2006 @11:00PM (#15103306) Homepage
    West Philadelphia to be more precise. I've seen cars broken for much less valuable stuff ... (like a pack of softdrinks, if you can believe it). Living your purse in a car in a conspicuous place is simply dumb around here.
  • Need to Know. (Score:3, Informative)

    by twitter ( 104583 ) on Monday April 10, 2006 @11:40PM (#15103458) Homepage Journal
    This isn't new. Whenever you reveal in public something of particular worth, there's a possibility that some moron is going to attack you

    That's why you need to know that some moron thinks your laptop is valuable. This has not always been the case. Paw shops have traditionally shied away from computers because they are tricky to fix and their value falls too quickly. Ebay has changed that. The reality of the situation is not as important as what the dirtbags think. It's a trend and it will spread as the bums migrate north and east for summer.

    You also should know to NEVER buy a laptop on the street. No matter how good the deal looks. You are looking at a thief and you might be their next victim. Get away cleanly, without resistance, and report the suspicious activity to the police.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 11, 2006 @01:35AM (#15103870)
    This is the relevant Wired article [] that talks about the weakness in some laptop locks. OWNED.
  • Re:PC Phone Home (Score:2, Informative)

    by forgoodmeasure ( 885419 ) <> on Tuesday April 11, 2006 @03:32AM (#15104148)
    Sort of a software LoJack.

    Much like LoJack for Laptops [TM] even. []

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 11, 2006 @07:53AM (#15104675)
    I went to the site and clicked on the BUY button. I got a message that I was using an unsupported browser and that I would have to use IE. Forget it guys. If you were real security experts, you wouldn't insist that people use the most insecure browser in the universe.

Trap full -- please empty.