How to ask the Internet to Help When Your Laptop is Stolen

On Apr 4th, at 4:35pm, Paul Daniel Raynal, a suspected fugitive from Portland, OR stole my MacBook Air and iPhone from Joy’s Cafe in San Francisco, CA. If you would like to learn more about this story, here’s my blog post on it.

It was an epic 3 days. Phew! Extremely emotionally taxing to say the least. I would not ever want to go through that again. However, if you inevitably find yourself in this situation, this is  how I asked the Internet to catch the thief and a bit of lessons I learned along the way.

Timeline:
2014/04/04 4:35 PM Raynal stole my MacBook Air and iPhone from Joy’s Place in SF
2014/04/04 4:57 PM I reported a theft to the police
2014/04/04 7:13 PM The police arrived at the scene
2014/04/05 1:00 AM I received the surveillance footage from Joy’s Place
2014/04/05 1:27 PM Video and blog shared on social networks
2014/04/05 Link to blog and YouTube video start to go viral on Hacker News, Reddit, Facebook and Twitter
2014/04/06 YouTube video reaches 150K view count
2014/04/07 Local news media features video and story
2014/04/07 4:15 PM Received a tweet from Sydney that Raynal was apprehended by SF Police

Disclaimer: This guide only works with video or photo evidence.

Once you realize your computer or iPhone is stolen:

1. As soon as you realize your device(s) is stolen, activate your installed theft protection first. Sending the activation signal as soon as possible gives your devices the greatest chance of getting this message. In order to trigger most protection software, your device(s) must be connected to the internet. If the thief is experienced, the first thing they will do is to turn off your device, so the window of opportunity is extremely small. If you have an Apple device, Find my iPhone software is included (also works with Mac computers). If you don’t have Find my iPhone, there are other free third party option such as Prey Project. In addition to locating your device, it has some additional features such as taking photos of the suspect.

NOTE: I did not do this until 30 minutes after the theft, which was already too late. The devices never showed up online again and thus the signals send by me to locate and lock were never received by the devices. If you must, grab the nearest person with a computer and ask if you can use their computer to activate the signals immediately.

2. Call the police and report the incident immediately. Theft is usually at the bottom of the priority list for most law enforcement agencies. So it will take several hours until the officers will arrive. Do NOT leave the crime scene. Be there when the officers come. They will come. I waited roughly 3 hours.

3. While you’re waiting on the law enforcement to arrive, contact the manager/owner of the business and ask for any surveillance footage. If you can get the footage before the officers arrive, you will save some time. Timing is so critical and you must get a good description and video if possible to the police. If the manager asks you to come back when it’s more convenient for them, you will lose that much time. So be persistent and ask for the footage at the earliest time possible. Also make sure you get a copy for yourself.

NOTE: We didn’t get the video in time and theft cases like this don’t warrant weekend investigations. So the case was left without active assistance over sat-sun. If we had gotten the video before the law enforcement arrived, they could have started searching for the suspect on Fri.

4. After filing the report with the police, make sure you get the case number and the phone number of the police station which has jurisdiction over your case. You will get an inspector assigned to your case later. The inspector will be the person to whom you should pass over all the evidences you collect.

5. If you have a renter’s insurance, call the insurance company and report the incident. Make sure to give the case number. For some theft cases, insurance can cover a portion of the losses even though the incident happened outside of your residence.

6.  With the copy of the surveillance footage, create a collage of the suspect from many different angles. Also write a clear and eye-catching slogan. Below is what I made.

laptop-stolen-cover

laptop-stolen-cover

7. Edit the video footage to be a digestible size and upload to YouTube, Vimeo, and Instagram. The video needs to be just long enough to tell a compelling story, but not too long. I made mine 2:30 minutes, trying to fill as much of the time with images of the suspect and the events that led to the theft. Some people will complain that it’s too long. Don’t mind those comments. The video has to be long enough for people to observe the suspect’s face at multiple angles, body shape, peculiar behaviors, mannerism, outfit and so on. However, to keep people engaged during the entire duration of the video, add annotations to the video to give some contexts to what is going on.

8. Write a blog post where people can find all the nitty gritty details. Enable comments to make sure people with tips can leave a message. Include the case number and police station phone number to allow direct reporting. Also provide multiple ways to reach you such as Twitter and Google+. For your safety, you should not include personally identifiable information such as email or phone number. Make sure your blog can handle increased traffic. Mine crashed on day 1 and had to revive my old Tumblr blog as an emergency patch up. Here’s link to my Tumblr blog.

9. Now start with Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Nextdoor (social network for neighbors). Ask your friends, family and acquaintances to share the photo collage you created above with a link to the video and link to your blog post. (*** Make sure you make this post “Public” so anyone can share).

facebook_share

facebook_share

10. The goal is to get as many people to watch the video as possible. Identify friends that have a large number of followers as well as influence on social networks to share your story. For my case, one of my friends posted a link to my blog on Hacker News. Then someone who saw the post on Hacker News decided to share on Reddit. I received 150K + view count on YouTube within one day, thanks to people sharing.

11. Once your video starts trending, ask a few local media channels to cover your story. If they see your video view count approaching 100K+, some of them will decide to pick up your story. The importance of getting local media involved is that they have concentrated media coverage and can get your video in front of many people in close proximity to the crime. The person who identified the suspect watched my video through a local news station’s website.

Tips

1. Provide frequent updates to your audience both on your blog and social networks. Keep people interested and ask them to share multiple times.

2. There are trolls. Don’t be alarmed that there are spiteful and mean-spirited cowards out there who will hide behind their monitor and take sick pleasure out of leaving meaningless and nasty comments. Don’t be bogged down by these haters. It will be emotionally taxing if you do let them get to you. The more viral your story goes, the more trolls you will notice. I decided not to engage in any conversation with them but made a video pleading people to stop arguing about what I should’ve done and to focus on the task of catching this thief. Most sympathetic decent people will hear your voice and understand your predicament.

3. Remember, criminals can be deceiving. Do not focus on hair color, clothes, or even gender. The suspect in my case turned out to be a male.

4. Be tenacious. It takes a lot of effort to keep the video going viral. Continue to ask people to share.

If you have any question, please feel free to leave a comment below.

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