Twitter may make you stupid, as some journalists have recently claimed. But dang, if it isn't good at recovering stolen property.
A Canadian Web consultant got a message last night from tracking software that his stolen MacBook Pro was being used at a bar in New York City. He then got his Twitter followers to go to the bar, confront the user and get back the computer.
Sean Power (@seanpower) was in New York City last week on business when his laptop bag was stolen. In it were his MacBook, his cellphone, his Ontario health card and two copies of his birth certificate.
Fortunately, his passport wasn’t stolen, so Power returned home to Ottawa, Ontario, on schedule. Four days went by, and he bought an iPad to replace the MacBook Pro.
Catching a thief
Thursday night, however, Power got a message that his old laptop was online.
Power had installed Prey, a free tracking tool, which not only told him that his MacBook Pro was being used at a restaurant in downtown Manhattan, but also gave him screenshots of its screen — and turned on the user-facing camera.
Powers was looking at the man using his stolen laptop 500 miles away.
He quickly jumped on Twitter and told his followers — all 12,000 of them — what was happening.
"Twitter, help! Prey just found my stolen (as of three days ago) laptop. Here's the report. I see the guy!" he tweeted.
As Power told SecurityNewsDaily, "I feel that I am justified in taking pictures of anything around my property if it is stolen."
The man in New York then logged onto Skype using his real name. Power sent out the man's name (we won't use his last name) and location — a restaurant in the Soho neighborhood called Oficina Latina, which happened to be the last place Power had seen his laptop.
"OK. Paulo Xxxxxx is playing with my laptop *right now* at Oficina Latina in NYC (a tequila bar)", wrote Power.
A follower of Power named @hughmcguire did some Googling.
"@seanpower dude he's the *owner* of the resto: www.barspace.tv/oficinalatinanyc"
Another came up with a plan.
"@seanpower I am sure we can virtually arrange a geek squad intervention to go reclaim your gear. You need help rounding up a posse?" tweeted @pfasano.
Springing into action
Power didn't want anyone to get hurt, so he called the local New York Police Department precinct to ask if officers could go to the restaurant.
He sent a female friend to the restaurant to wait for the police.
She waited and waited, so Power called the precinct again, and got some bad news.
"The cops are saying that they're not going to send someone because I didn't file a report," he tweeted in frustration. "They're not going. And I just got hung up on."
But meanwhile, Power's female friend, who didn't use Twitter (he refers to her as "the girl in the purple sarong") was making friends at the bar.
"Text from the girl at bar: 'Max [another owner of the restaurant] is hitting on me. Just gave me his card. He is the interior designer of this place.' (hah)", Power tweeted. "Apparently, the girl that went there has befriended two of the bartenders and is doing shots with them. Wow."
And another Twitter follower of his, Nick Reese, was captivated by the whole exchange and hopped a cab down to the restaurant.
Reese met the woman in the purple sarong, then texted Power that that Max, the man who'd been hitting on her, was walking out carrying a laptop bag.
"Don't follow him. Don't get directly involved," Power texted back. "It's not worth it."
Reese would have none of that. Thanks to Max's conversation with the woman in the purple sarong, the two of them already had his cellphone number and address.
Power called Max and spoke to him. Then Max made another call.
"I think Max just called," Reese texted. "Paulo is on the phone with him."
Max returned to the restaurant, where Reese and the woman showed everyone the pictures of Paolo — who turned out to be one of the bartenders — using the stolen laptop.
"Not liking this," Reese texted. "Max is furious."
Power got worried. "Are you still there? Still OK?" he texted Reese.
Four minutes passed. And then came some good news.
"She's here," texted Reese. "Got the bag. In a cab with the bag."
Finally, Power signed off with a summation of tweets.
"So ... Paolo freely gave it up. I'm not about to accuse anyone of anything. I'd rather forget that that place exists and just move on," he wrote. "OH. And yes, my birth certificates & ID are in there. Looks like everything is intact. But yes, Internet - I'm about 800km away, and I got my stolen laptop back."
The power of 'intelligent terminals'
To Power, who spoke to SecurityNewsDaily today as he was on his way back to New York to be reunited with his property, the entire incident is an amazing demonstration of the power of communications technology.
"What's really the interesting thing here is the place in the road where privacy, findability and real time meet, as a result of the increasingly intelligent terminals that we have at our disposal," Power said.
But he thinks it wouldn’t have worked unless he'd already had a significant number of Twitter followers: 12,575 at last count.
"When you have a lot of followers who are engaged, your propensity to be able to spread messages is much greater," Power said.