While in New Zealand I tracked down a burglar - the whole story made the front page of the New Zealand Herald which can be read here.

Here is the story:

As you might know we had a break-in on Monday night. The burgler obviously climbed onto the first floor balustrate and smashed his way into the offices where he saw a laptop. What he got was quite a lot:

M's Toshiba Satellite laptop

C's IBM ThinkPad laptop

and from me two Macintosh Powerbooks, a Sony digital video camera, a Kodak digital still camera, two iPAQ PocketPC organisers, several expansion bay drives and power adapters (all in all $15,000 worth) - and most importantly all my data of the last three years since he also stole my backup drive.

I can't really say I was shocked on Tuesday - the only thought I had was "I'll get you bastard". (My apologies for the language). And then the usual go-around: change online-banking access codes. Cancel credit card. Change passwords on online access sites (as far as I could remember). Call Renaissance (09 622 3600) and put the Powerbooks onto the "Black List". And all the time plotting what I could do ... after all there are only so many ways to get rid of stolen goods, and all I needed to do was cut off everyone.

So I laid out several traps:

- I called the "Trade & Exchange" and "Loot" and posted ads (under my home number) in them saying "Macintosh Powerbook G3 urgently required"

- I wrote to several newsgroups stating

"Hi all,

two of my Powerbooks have been stolen in a break-in last night. Unfortunately the thieves also stole my backup drive, so I lost three years worth of cancer research data. I would appreciate if they could at least return the expansion bay harddisk with the data on it, or if I could buy back my laptop (no questions asked)."

- I bought a new mobile phone number (in case the thief recognised my home number) and posted another ad in the "Trade&Exchange" and "Loot" for the following edition stating "Apple mac laptop wanted"

- I registered with an anonymous hotmail address and posted ads on newsgroups and on online auction sites stating "Macintosh Powerbook wanted"

- I got a list of all CashConverters in NZ and informed them of the theft and the serial numbers of the stolen items - while CashConverter checks serial numbers there is a window of opportunity for the thieves between the time when the item is stolen and when the serial number appears in the Police database).

- I got a list of all second-hand dealers in Auckland

And then I took most of Thursday off and stayed at home. I got up at 5:45 and checked both the "Trade&Exchange" and "Loot" early in the morning and called all ads which advertised a Powerbook although I didn't expect the thief to be that fast. I also would have contacted anyone looking for a Powerbook and given them the details to look out for but my ad was the only one.

After 9 am I started calling second-hand shops under a false name (not all second-hand dealers are clean) but it became very tedious after an hour. I was thinking of enlisting the help of our students after lunch when the phone rang - and because I was just talking with a visitor and was distracted I made the stupid mistake of automatically answering with my name (but luckily without consequences - the thief COULD have known my personal details from my laptop, and I had answered my phone all morning under a false name until this call). The conversation went something like this:

T: "Are you looking for a Macintosh Powerbook?"

M: "Yes."

T: "What are you doing? Are you at the University?" [obviously to ensure I'm not from where he stole the laptops]

M: "Yes. I'm a student and do an art course at Auckland University. They told me I should have a Mac - I don't know to much about them, but they told me what I should look out for. What specs has yours?"

T: "It's a 400 MHz Powerbook G3 Bronze, 192 MB RAM, 6 GB HD ..."

M (interrupting): "The harddisk is a bit small ..."

T: "It also has a 10 GB expansion bay hard drive"

HAH! Expension bay hard drives are very uncommon in NZ. Mine is actually a 20 GB one but since I already use 10 GB the header in the window would read 10 GB free. That meant to me it was most likely my machine and the data were still on there!

M: "Sounds good - what price were you looking for?"

T: "$1,500"

M: "That's a good price [actually it's a totally ridulous price and convinced me that it was a stolen Powerbook]. Where can I see it?'

T: "98 Titirangi Road. I'm going out at 5 so mid-afternoon would be best for me."

M: "Sure. I have to organise some transport since I don't have a car, but I should be able to come out during the afternoon."

And so I went back to work where I found B. and C. and filled them in. We worked out the following plan: C. would be the "student" for whom the powerbook is. C. and I would go in and B. would wait in the car. If not one of us is out within 20 min B. would call the Police. If I identify the Powerbook as mine I would tell C. "Yes, let's buy it" and he would pretend to go to the bank but get the Police instead. If it is not my Powerbook then I would say "No, we need something with a Firewire port" which this model doesn't have and leave.

So B. drove us all out and waited in the car with the mobile phone. C. and I went and knocked at the door, and the guy came out of a side entrance and asked us in. I was quite surprised - you expect some shifty looking character, but he was clean, muscular, medium hight, in his mid 20s, european looking, blond hair. Like the nice guy from next door and I at first thought "that can't be him". But when I was inside and started up the Powerbook and saw the modified start-up screen (a Calvin & Hobbes picture instead of the boring MacOS picture) I immediately recognised it as one of mine. According to C. my eyes were bulging out but I dispute that! Anyway I inconspicuously stepped onto C.' toes five times (to make sure I had his attention) and mouthed "It's mine" when the thief wasn't looking. After playing around with it a bit and to my disappointment seeing it wasn't the one with my data on it I said "We'll take it" and asked if the thief would take a cheque - which as expected he wouldn't. So we asked for directions to the next ASB bank and C. went off to "get the money", while I explained that it might take a while since you can only get $800 from the ATM and so C. would need to go into the bank and stand in line ...

I was convinced that my other Powerbook must be close by - especially since I saw one of my iPAQs on the table and an IBM ThinkPad on a chair. So I told the thief that I'm actually looking for more Mac Powerbooks "especially at this price" - and he opened a drawer and pulled out the other one with the words "I still need to take the system off before you take it with you" - OH NO, YOU DON'T was what I was thinking - but at the same time elated because it meant my data were most probably still on there. I powered it up and indeed - there it was. All my documents and sequence files etc. :-)

The thief excused himself and said he needed to do some work since he needed to get the ThinkPad ready by this evening - so I needed a way to prevent him from wiping C.'s harddisk. I saw a rather tacky chess board with figures on the table and asked him if he plays chess, and explained that I'm not a good player but love to play - detailing some of the embarrassing episodes when I was mate after a few moves ("Schaefer's Matt" - a well known move with which you might be able to trick a beginner) - and challenged him to a game which he accepted. So we started to play and I needed to keep him occupied - giving him enough advantage to keep his interest while never waiting too long (he might have started formatting the harddisk if he had too much idle time), "loosing" my queen after 10 moves (I had his after 7 moves), playing sometimes fast and sometimes slow to make time, and peppering it all with comments like "That is a shrewed move" or "Ups - I didn't see that one coming ..." ...

After about 40 min of play there was a knock at the door and C. and three policemen stood outside. The Police asked him if he has stolen goods in his possession and he was so flustered that he said "Yes", telling as he came back into the room that he "bought" it from someone but couldn't say who it was. Then he looked at me and I said: "By the way - you are mate. And you are a terrible chess player" [which actually made it into the police report ;-)] ... I know, it was mean, but I could have whacked the guy!!! He was obviously intelligent, computer saavy, and could easily make his living with computer related work.

Anyway, he immediately brought the other things forward - my digital video camera, M.'s laptop, my other iPAQ, another laptop which isn't from our work as far as we can tell (what is still missing are a few Power adapters, worth about $1,200). The Police took his details, two plain clothes police men from the burglery squad arrived and identified him as a known fellow (last time involved in a $100,000 burglery if I got that right), and took his details. Then - while the five policemen chatted about who should deal with the case - our thief (now identified as Brent Crozier) went out the window and did a runner. It was quite comical when we saw the Police asking a passer-by who said "Yes, down that way - about 2 min ago ..."

B., C. & I feel like "The famous Five", and the nice (and very pretty) police woman who took our statements at the police station had a blast writing it all down (and asked at the end if we had taken an application form for the police service).


What is to learn from this?

NEVER get complacent about your back-ups!

NEVER leave them close to the computer like I did (I was incredibly angry about my own stupidity).

NEVER leave a small thing alone (like not having keys for my cabinet - they snowball into big things!).

And the moral of the story is - even if you are the victim of a burglery you are far from helpless - the most difficult part for a burgler is not the break-in, but getting rid of the goods (especially if you have the serial numbers). There is only a limited number of ways to dispose of the goods, and if you act quickly you stand a good chance of recovering them. BUT YOU NEED THE SERIAL NUMBERS!

That's all I can think of for now - time for dinner and a good glass of scottish single malt ...

The (happy) end

Brent Crozier
(picture found on the internet)