Revenge of the Nerds: Low-Tech Crooks vs. High-Tech Gadgets

It should come as no surprise that electronics are a popular target for thieves. Luckily for the victims of these crimes, not all robbers understand the technology they're stealing. Here are seven stories of low-tech crooks foiled by the high-tech devices they stole.

1. Caught You(Tube)

Mark Bao, a freshman at Bentley University, briefly left his laptop in a dorm room lounge where he thought it would be safe. Of course, when he came back, the computer was gone. But weeks later, Bao realized he could access his old laptop's files thanks to an internet-based backup service called Backblaze. When Bao logged into his Backblaze account, it was clear that the thief had at least gotten good usage out of the computer – he'd signed into Facebook, taken a few incriminating photos with the webcam, and even recorded videos of his pretty sweet dance moves.

While Bao could have simply turned the guy in, he instead posted one of the dancing videos to YouTube. Bao proceeded to spread the clip around via Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit to teach the thief a lesson. It worked – the crook heard about the video and immediately brought the laptop to the police. He also sent Bao a personal message to apologize—and to beg him to take down the video. No luck there. Check out those dance moves:

2. From Xbox to Ex-Con

When Missouri State University student Ryan Ketsenburg and his roommate came home late from a school trip, they were both exhausted. Thinking only of sleep, the two collapsed into their beds, forgetting to lock the door. During the night, someone crept in and stole Ketsenburg's Xbox 360, but left behind the wireless video game controller. When Ketsenburg turned the controller on the next morning, it was close enough to the stolen game console that it tried to connect, meaning the crook had to be somewhere in his dorm.

Knowing the controller's effective range is only about 30 feet, Ketsenburg wandered up and down the floors of the dorm, watching the wireless signal indicator on the controller, looking for a strong signal from the console. When the controller finally connected to the Xbox, he contacted the RA to gain access to the closest room. To prove the console inside was his, Ketsenburg turned it on by using the controller. The thief had already formatted the hard drive, meaning Ketsenburg lost all of his saved games, but at least he got his Xbox back.

3. Best. Software Demo. Ever.

A shiny new iPhone is a pretty tempting target for most petty thieves. When Horatio Toure saw Jordan Sturm standing on the side of a San Francisco street with her iPhone, it must have looked like an easy score. He rode by her on his bike, grabbed the phone, and pedaled away. It all happened so quickly, Sturm probably didn’t even see what he looked like. He was scot-free…or so he thought.

Little did Toure know, Sturm worked for software developer Covia Labs, and was standing on the street to help demonstrate the company’s new iPhone app for real-time GPS tracking. A few blocks away, her boss was in a board room describing how the software worked to his marketing team, when suddenly the little dot that represented Sturm’s phone on the map started moving across the screen. Instead of running after Toure, Sturm ran upstairs to her office and called her boss, who then called police and helped them pinpoint the phone’s location. Toure only got to enjoy his stolen iPhone for about 10 minutes before the cops came to arrest him.

4. Say Cheese!

In April 2008, Kait Duplaga of White Plains, New York, and her roommates were the victims of a burglary. The thieves took anything electronic—video games, iPods, DVDs, a flat-screen TV, and a couple laptops. The police had no leads, so the chances of finding the stolen goods were slim. But Duplaga had an ace up her sleeve—she was employed as a “Genius” at a nearby Apple Store.

After Duplaga received a text message from a friend, congratulating her on the return of her laptop, she said she didn't know what they were talking about. It turns out Duplaga wasn't online, but her laptop was. Using another computer, she signed on to “Back to My Mac,” software that allows users to access their Macintosh computer over the internet. Her MacBook was indeed online, so she logged in and activated the built-in webcam. At first all she saw was an empty room. But soon, a man sat down in front of the computer and Duplaga was able to snap a picture of Ian Frias. Frias and his partner in crime, Edmon Shahikian, had recently attended a party at Duplaga’s apartment as guests of a mutual friend, and had obviously cased the joint while they were there. She turned the photo and the thieves' names over to police, who quickly apprehended the not-so-dynamic duo.

5. Foiled by Facebook

While most people prefer to get their stolen computer back as soon as possible, sometimes patience is a virtue. Such was the case for Australian ladder manufacturer Branach when one of the company's laptops was stolen in June 2009. Thankfully their IT consultants, Navigatum, had installed remote access software on the missing computer. Using this tool, Navigatum technicians were able to automatically take pictures of the laptop's screen every 30 seconds whenever it appeared online. They hoped the thief would slip up by giving away personal information—an email address, an order on Amazon, anything they could use to report him to police.

Unfortunately, the crook only did one thing for the two months he was being tracked—he looked at porn. Although they had a collection of screen shots that would make your grandmother blush, they didn't have anything that told them who the thief was. Until one day when he decided to update his status on Facebook; from there it was off to the races. Name, where he lived, who his friends were—the technicians had more than enough for the police to find him. When they recovered the laptop, they learned the culprit was an 18-year old kid.

6. You Couldn't Wait to Play Angry Birds?

After Kyle Kurk of Louisville had his iPad stolen, he turned to “Find my iPhone,” an app that allows you to track your iPad over the web. When the iPad's GPS receiver was activated, he saw that it was still in Louisville, in a McDonald's parking lot on the corner of 2nd and Broadway. With this new bit of information, he called police, who went to investigate.

When the officers arrived, they saw Shaun Burton sitting in his car, playing with an iPad that he claimed he had purchased earlier that day from another man. As police continued to question him, the gadget suddenly started beeping after Kurk, still sitting at home on his computer, sent a message to his iPad. As if that weren't suspicious enough, officers also saw a small bag of marijuana in the car's backseat, giving them reason enough to search the vehicle.

It turns out the iPad was just the tip of the iceberg. Over the previous 48 hours, Burton had gone on a drug-fueled crime spree across Kentucky and Indiana. Inside the car, police found cocaine, marijuana, and thousands of dollars in stolen cell phones, cameras, a laptop, and credit cards. The lawmen also found a safe and an AR-15, a civilian version of the Army's M-16, both of which had been stolen from the home of Burton's cousin, a police officer, the night before. Burton was charged with receipt of stolen property, trafficking in a controlled substance, and possession of drug paraphernalia. He's now a suspect in several other thefts.

7. You've Got Jail!

It was 4:30 on a Sunday morning in Manhattan and Sayaka Fukuda knew she probably shouldn’t be taking the subway at that hour. As the N train was pulling into the nearly deserted station, two men approached her on the platform, one of whom was wearing a conspicuous red and white Spider-Man cap. The next thing she knew, the men had grabbed her purse and cell phone, and hopped on the departing train to make their getaway. Fukuda reported the incident to police, including a description of the suspects, and headed home.

Still wired from her scare, she decided to check her email, and noticed there were unusual messages in the outbox. She opened the messages to find photos of the guy in the Spider-Man cap. He had taken pictures and sent them to himself, unknowingly using Fukada's email account. She immediately forwarded the photos to the police, but she also sent a reply to the crook: “Thank you for your picture. I sent them to the cops, you’re going to get arrested soon.” He replied with threats, saying he knew where she lived and worked, claiming he would “send people” for her. Scared, but determined, she tried to reason with him: “Don’t ruin your life for a cellphone. Go to the cops before it gets worse.” His next email seemed a more logical response: “You’re right, but I’m not going to the cops.”

Instead, the cops found Daquan Mathis after they compared the emailed photos against mug shots. Mathis was charged with robbery and grand larceny, and later confessed to two other crimes, including robbing another person at gunpoint for their iPod.
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Know of anyone else that used technology to get their stolen or lost gadget back? Tell us about it in the comments.

Michael Campanella/Getty Images
10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
Michael Campanella/Getty Images
Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.


"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.


"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles


"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole


"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles



"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole


"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles


"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."


A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios

"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.


If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).


Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.


Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother


When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."


A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:


In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:


Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.


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