My MacBook Woe: I got up close and personal with city's snatch'n'dash crooks (aka some bastard stole my laptop)

Thief swipes Reg vulture's computer from under his fingers in cafe – here's what happened next

Comment There were two fleeting moments of confusion: first when he grabbed my laptop from under my fingers and took off racing out the coffee shop; and second, when it became clear that the license plate wasn't real.

On Monday afternoon, at about 2pm, some bastard stole my laptop as I was typing on it. It was wholly unexpected. I was sat in a coffee shop I often go to in the afternoon to do some work and someone entered my vision from the right-hand side. There was absolutely no hesitation on his part: he grabbed the laptop and immediately took off. I only saw his back.

I perceived it almost as if someone had stumbled toward me. It took a fraction of a second to realize what had happened. And then I shot off after him. The first word out my mouth a loud and indignant, "Motherfucker!" showing how long I've been in America, followed by "grab him!" as he zoomed toward to the exit.

No one did, and he burst through the glass doors onto the street with me two seconds behind. The door slowed him just enough that I immediately calculated that unless he was a really fast runner, I would catch him in the next 50 feet or so.

A question flashed through my mind: how dangerous is this? And immediately discarded it: we were on a main road in the heart of San Francisco. Dozens of people were nearby. All I had to do was get him on the ground and someone would come help me pin him down.

And then I saw it: a white car with the passenger door open and he was making a beeline for it. There was no way I was going to reach him in time.

License plate! I focused my efforts on making sure I read and memorized it before it was out of sight. And I did: AE06T66. But as it took off, I noticed something was not right: it seemed flimsy... and was that another plate underneath? The car was gone, and I'd forgotten to note what make it was. White, four-door sedan was the best I could provide the cops later.

Catch-up

Still full of adrenaline, I remembered my phone was still on the table and ran back to the coffee shop, worried it too might be gone, saying the fake number plate to myself so I could write it down. The phone and my bag were still there but my personal MacBook Air was very much gone. This morning I unhappily looked up how much it is going to cost me to replace it: just over $1,500.

There is a small chance we can catch this bastard. There were two security cameras in the coffee shop, and he will have been caught on both. While typing the fake plate into my phone, a man came up to me and told me he hadn't seen the robbery – but had seen the guy who did it, and reckoned he would be able to recognize him (I had only seen the back of him).

He gave me his driving license, I took a pic, and he gave me his number. The building security guy turned up, gave me his card, and told me he would go and save the surveillance footage for the cops.

But before that, I opened the Find my iPhone app on my iPhone, and hit the lock icon for my MacBook Air, which is connected to my iCloud account. I typed the message: "Give me back my Mac," which is what will appear as soon as anyone tries to use the machine and it reaches the internet. I later change it to: "Please return this to the coffee shop on Howard and 1st Street that you stole it from. They have my details."

I see another option on the app – Play Sound – which I choose to imagine will cause the machine to let out an eardrum-piercing scream when my laptop makes contact with the outside world, and select it. The reality is slightly different: "After a five-second delay, the Mac plays a sound. The sound increases to full volume after five seconds and plays for about two minutes." I wonder what the sound is. And whether it will sound only once or every time it's opened while in locked mode.

But, at time of writing, it's now been nearly 24 hours, and the limits to this welcome security from Apple are all too apparent: the machine remains offline because it hasn't been connected to the internet. It is still dormant and noiseless somewhere. And it is perfectly possible that someone is logged into the guest account, being careful not to connect to the internet.

In the system

I call 911 and speak to a focused and professional police dispatcher. She sounds almost hopeful as I relay the details but her urgency in tone shifts down when I give her the license plate number and relay my suspicion that it was fake. I suspect she had already put the number in the system and drawn a blank.

And that leads to a bigger question: who the hell goes to the trouble of printing out and attaching a fake license plate before they head out? Clearly someone who expects to be robbing people in public. And why go to the all the trouble – including parking for a fast getaway – just to steal a laptop?

It gets more involved than that: the thief did not run out the nearest doors – of which there are not one but two closer – but instead ran all the way through the coffee shop, massively increasing the risk of being stopped on the way out of the main entrance. Why? San Francisco traffic.

The nearest doors face onto 1st street and even at 2pm, the traffic heading onto the Bay Bridge is thick. A getaway car would likely get stuck in traffic within 10 feet. But Howard Street is one-way and faster flowing. So they parked there.

I doubt the thieves had been scouting out the coffee shop for long. I had only arrived five minutes earlier, and was sat far from the entrance, not visible from the road. All of this points to some unusual conclusions:

First, an unusual degree of thought and planning had gone into it. And second, they took enormous risks for very little payoff. The desk cop I speak to later tells me that the value of the laptop (more than $950) makes it a felony – grand theft – which is punishable by between one and three years in jail.

You can only get one laptop with this kind of snatch-and-dash effort. I doubt the resale value of an old Macbook Air, no questions asked, is more than $150, which is very little payoff for the risk. It only makes sense if thrill seeking is a key component of the crime.

And because of that, I am hopeful that San Francisco cops will take my case seriously, rather than shove it on the mounting pile of items stolen from parked cars, the city's latest crime spike. A swipe-and-sprint at lunchtime in a busy part of the city is not just criminal or desperate behavior, but someone doing it for the thrill.

Not the first time

What is all the more concerning is that I was far from an easy target. I was already acutely aware of the risk of laptop theft: my neighborhood in Oakland, across the Bay, has had not one but two recent examples of this.

At the start of the year, someone grabbed the laptop of a woman sat next to the door of Café Santana in the city, and ran off into a waiting car. The situation got worse in March when a man went into the World Ground Coffee Shop – two minutes down the road – with a gun and demanded everyone give him their laptops. That one made the news.

Nearby college town Berkeley has been suffering a spate of laptop thefts in the past two years thanks to the number of students working out of coffee shops – to the extent the cops went undercover to catch a group of thieves preying on undergrads.

In part thanks to these thefts, I have always been careful about where I sit when I use my laptop in public. In this case I was in between three tables with my back to a wall, facing the doors. The laptop was close to me on my side of the table. I have replayed the incident over in my head dozens of times since and the really disturbing thing is that there is nothing I could have done different. If some bastard is willing to take the risk to grab your machine and leg it out of there, there isn't much you can do about it. And I was after him fast.

The only real solution at this point is a laptop lock that fits into your USB port with a steel cable that you can then attach to something solid. They are far from perfect, though it could well have worked in this case. And they cost $15-30, which is a damn sight cheaper than $1,500. I am getting one.

Data

Of course, just as big an issue is data. As a freelance tech journalist, I have pretty good security habits. I use a password manager and generator (1Password) with a master password, as every single person that has their own computer should.

Even in the unlikely event that this thief is technically proficient, or passes my laptop onto some criminal gang that has the necessary skills, they are going to have a hard time accessing any of my accounts. I don't even know the passwords to most of the websites and services I use.

Even so, I have spent the morning changing all the passwords to my most important and commonly used apps and sites. Having a password manager provided an immediate sense of relief when I realized that so much personal information was now potentially in the hands of a stranger.

And then there is two-factor authentication; another lifesaver. While redoing all my passwords, there have been persistent reassuring prompts to enter codes or click on access links from a different device. This also means that no one has tried to access my accounts except me – because I haven't had any alerts.

My only two remaining concerns, aside from the massive hassle and the cost of a new machine (Good news! It’s covered by my insurance! Bad news! My deductible is $2,000!) is that someone at some point could still access the files I have on the machine. It's a small likelihood, especially given the hard drive encryption my machine had, but it’s still there. I will be watching my credit and accounts like a hawk for months now.

What I'm not clear about is if I "remove" my Air from my Apple account – so it can't be used to authorize other access – will the command to lock it still hold? And I can't decide whether to send the command to delete the hard drive because I am still holding onto the hope that it will be found. Apple should really do a simple guide to its various options.

But the worst part is the stuff that I have now lost. Three years' worth of work, pictures, videos, ideas, cuttings. Yes, some of it was backed up. But I haven't been religious about it. I honestly don't recall how I set it up to save the important stuff but not the less important stuff. I haven't checked my backup services yet and am somewhat dreading discovering what slipped through the cracks.

Stress

There was also the stress of the event and the fact that I will be less relaxed and more paranoid in coffee shops from now on. That pisses me off. And then there is the lost afternoon traipsing over to the SF police station, going through the slow and inefficient system of filing a report and slowly realizing that the likelihood of them catching the thief or returning my laptop – even when there is footage, and a witness and someone willing to go to court for it – is depressingly small.

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"And you would be willing to press charges?" the desk sergeant asks at the end of a 30-minute exchange that mostly comprised of me standing up reading various notices on the walls and him sat down typing into a computer. "Yes. I'm mad. He took it right from under my fingers." The cop perked up very slightly at the thought of a successful prosecution but it quickly faded again as his experience reminded him of the likelihood of that happening. I'm glad he has his job and not me.

I have my police report number and will call in 10 days to see if it has been assigned to a detective. They have my machine's serial number in the unlikely event that the thieves ditch it and the cops find it: another useful thing that Apple's system made easy (you need to log into your AppleID from a browser > Devices > Info).

But mostly I'm annoyed. I had a satisfying dream last night in which someone was coming in the door as the thief ran out and I managed to smash him into the coffee shop counter before landing on top of him.

In truth, though, the most awful part of the whole experience was how everyone in the coffee shop, save two guys who came and talked to me afterwards, chose to ignore the whole thing and wouldn't even make eye contact afterwards. Cowards, I muttered under my breath. ®

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