This Guy Has My MacBook? Tracking Programs Get Viral Love in Stolen Laptop Stories


Throughout 2011 so far, we’ve had our eyes on some great viral marketing, like the so-called Times Square video screen takeover and the naked gaming parties that are actually a bunch of actors. Then, in the month of May, there were two stolen laptop sagas, and at the center of each, a computer program — one called Prey and one called Hidden — which received what is presumably an invaluable amount of buzz online without anything resembling traditional advertising. So did the companies create similar hoaxes to spread the word? Or do the programs just work that well? The world may never really know.

First there was the Sean Power story, which our own Tony Ortega followed late into the night.

Power said on Twitter that the Prey program found his stolen laptop and he started posting pictures of the thief. The guy was allegedly using the computer at a bar in Soho, but Power was in Canada, so he had some friends scope out the scene. Eventually, they got the laptop back.

Although we had some doubts throughout, a later interview with the perpetrator (who never encountered police), in which he admitted to having taken and eventually given back the laptop, spoke to the validity of the story. (Or, a super elaborate conspiracy that involved lying repeatedly to journalists.)

Which brings us to the second story, centering around a Tumblr called This Guy Has My Macbook. The computer’s rightful owner Joshua Kaufman wrote:

On March 21, 2011, my MacBook was stolen from my apartment in Oakland, CA. I reported the crime to the police and even told them where it was, but they couldn’t help me due to lack of resources. Meanwhile, I’m using the awesome app, Hidden, to capture these photos of this guy who has my MacBook.

The pictures he posted, like the one above, are funny and the concept so futuristic that the site spread wildly yesterday on social networks. Apparently that caught the attention of police, who had previously brushed Kaufman off, and so last night, they busted the thief using the evidence gathered by the computer program. Kaufman wrote:

Update: (May 31, 8:37 PM PST) ARRESTED! An Oakland police officer just called me to let me know that they arrested the guy in my photos! BOOYA! The police used my evidence (email which pointed to a cab service) that he was a driver and tricked him into picking them up. Nice work OPD!

Kaufman also tweeted some of the action, which ended with him writing, “This just in: MacBook acquired by the OPD! The officer was so kind on the phone: ‘It’s these kinds of partnerships that make things happen.'”

Though our Internet sense and unending cynicism keep nagging, there’s little proof pointing toward the story being fake, especially because, as in the Power story, there’s been no reveal. In the aforementioned viral marketing stunts, the company behind it has always come forward and explained eventually. These do seem like either airtight hoaxes or, more likely, totally legit, but don’t be surprised if competing companies try to gin up similar stories for similar amounts of free press.

In the case of Kaufman, we appear to just have a nabbed crook. And he would’ve gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for that pesky internet and programs like Prey and Hidden.

Welcome to the future of amateur detective work.