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

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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.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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May 23, 2017
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