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INNOVATION ECONOMY

Owners of missing gadgets can now do their own sleuthing

By Scott Kirsner
Globe Correspondent / September 4, 2011

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One Tuesday in May, Mike Schroll walked into the Methuen Police Department to report a stolen laptop. It had been taken from a car in Boston over the weekend. But Schroll didn’t just show up with a picture and serial number. Thanks to a piece of software called Prey that was installed on the laptop, he had photos of the suspected thief, his name, and the address where Schroll believed he was using the computer.

In a small number of cases locally, victims of theft are coming to police with solid information about who and where the thieves are, thanks to software that can control a missing computer remotely, and GPS and Wi-Fi technology built in to the latest mobile phones and tablets. As the technology becomes cheaper, we may be entering the era of “LoJack for everything,’’ when nearly any object of value, if stolen, will be able to help police track it down.

Josh Bob parked his car near Fenway Park in February 2010. He left a laptop bag on the front floor, with two computers inside. Someone smashed a window and took the bag. Using software called TeamViewer, which he had installed so he could have remote access to the machines, Bob was able to take video and photos of the people using the computers. He watched as a teenage girl logged into her Facebook account, which mentioned the school she attended. Boston police showed up at the school, got the girl’s address, and then recovered both computers a week after the theft.

“They were skeptical at first, when I was e-mailing them everything I was collecting,’’ said Bob. “But once they were able to track down the computers, I think they were quite pleased. It’s a solved case for them, instead of just another stolen laptop.’’ (The lesson Bob shared on his blog: Keep laptops locked in your trunk.)

One local case that attracted national attention this spring involved a Bentley University student, Mark Bao. Bao had installed an automatic data backup service called Backblaze on his laptop, which enabled him to peruse the new files that had been created after the $1,800 MacBook was stolen from a dorm. One file was a video of the alleged thief dancing in his kitchen to the song “Make It Rain.’’ Bao posted the video on YouTube, where it became a viral hit, racking up 1.6 million views.

Bao was also able to gather an e-mail address and Facebook page, which he provided to Bentley police. The alleged thief returned the laptop, and is now facing charges of larceny in Waltham District Court.

Owners of iPhones and iPads from Apple can use services like MobileMe or apps like Find My iPhone to divine where a lost or stolen device is located. But even then, the information isn’t always precise enough to help police make a collar. Last month, Greg Raiz, a Brookline entrepreneur, rode with a Boston police detective as MobileMe’s GPS led them to a multiple-unit complex.

The detective knocked on all six doors, but no one seemed to know anything about the iPad. Using his iPhone, Raiz instructed the device to emit a sound, but the detective couldn’t hear it outside the doors. “It was bittersweet to locate the device, but not be able to recover it,’’ he said.

The computer that was stolen from Schroll was an Apple MacBook Pro worth about $2,500. He used the Prey software to access the laptop and watch the thief. “He logged into Facebook, so we knew his name, and we used the laptop’s camera to take pictures of him sitting in front of the machine,’’ said Schroll. Prey also uses locating technology developed by Boston’s Skyhook Wireless, which looks for nearby Wi-Fi networks to determine where it is.

“When I showed up in Methuen and handed over all the info I had, they were kind of shocked to see a picture of the guy and his exact address,’’ he said. “It was kind of like, ‘How do you have this?’ ’’

The dispatcher asked Schroll to have a seat, and sent a patrol car over to the person’s house.

“The guy just handed over the machine,’’ he said. “I was at the police department for less than an hour.’’ The individual found with the laptop is being charged with receiving stolen property.

Schroll confesses to being a bit more security obsessed than the average person. “I’ve been installing Prey on my family’s and friends’ laptops for a while now,’’ he said. “As weird as it sounds, when one of our machines got stolen, I was kind of gung ho about it.’’

Already, tracking devices can be purchased for as little as $75 from companies like Zoombak (the monthly bill for wireless connectivity is extra - about $13 a month). Imagine prices dropping and individuals sticking tracking technology onto bikes, snowboards, strollers, or even golf clubs. Wouldn’t rounding up all that stuff - rather than just drafting a quick police report for insurance purposes - create a lot of extra work for police officers?

Sergeant David Monte of the Somerville Police Department said: “I don’t think it really makes more work for us. If my day is eight hours long, I can either spend it on cases with more information and leads, or less. This kind of technology gives you a much better chance that you’re going to solve the case.’’

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.