Tuesday, March 28, 2006
I've just returned from a month-long trip to Europe and the West Coast. While I was in Europe, professional thieves stole my briefcase, which contained my laptop, my PDA, my passport, some money, and all the files that I intended to work on during my time away from home. You learn quickly how dependent we have become on computers when you have to travel for two weeks without one.
Let me tell you how these thieves work and then something about some interesting devices for catching lawbreakers.
As I exited the Brussels Gare du Midi walking toward the taxi rank, I was pulling two rolling suitcases behind me -- a suitcase and my briefcase -- and carrying a small backpack over one shoulder. A man came up and walked beside my right side and said, in French, "Excuse me, sir. A pigeon has pooped on your coat." He started slapping at the back of my coat to remove the pigeon dropping. I assume that he and his unseen confederate expected me to stop walking, let go of the rollilng briefcase in my left hand, and reach back to wipe the pigeon stuff from my coat -- at which point the confederate would have swooped in to take my briefcase.
For whatever reason I didn't stop. I thanked the man and kept walking. I went to the first cab in the line and stood behind the cab. The driver came back, opened the trunk, and began to load my suitcase and backpack into the trunk. When I reached down to get my briefcase, it was gone. The other cabbies saw the thief and gave chase, but the thief was fleet-footed and escaped through the busy traffic.
A word to the wise: apparently this sort of thing happens all the time at train stations, airports, and the like throughout Europe. I can't tell you how many people have told me that they have been robbed in a fashion similar to mine. So, if you're going to the Continent this Summer, be careful!
Fortunately, I didn't lose anything that can't be replaced. And because I keep almost all the computer files on which I'm working on a 2 GB memory stick around my neck, I am able to recover almost everything that I have been working on.
I've been talking to the IT people here at the University of Illinois College of Law about computer theft and have learned some interesting things about how to catch a laptop thief. Apparently, our students' and faculty members' new laptops contain a program called Computrace. The program resides on the computer with information about the true owner. If someone steals a laptop loaded with Computrace, then the first time that the thief uses the stolen laptop to log on to the Internet, Computrace recognizes the laptop -- which has to have been reported stolen -- and alerts the police as to where the sign-on took place. See here for more about this program. It sounds a lot like Lojack, the famous automobile theft deterrence service.
Our IT people tell me that very sophisticated thieves know about Computrace and take steps, such as replacing the hard drive, to prevent being traced.
I'm reminded of another effective method of law enforcement that John Donohue recently told me about. He said that in Singapore cars must have a light on their roof and that that light goes on when a vehicle exceeds the speed limit. The light can only be turned off by the police, who present the car owner with a ticket for speeding in addition to turning off the light. Sounds like a great idea, but there must be some problems. What if the speed limits vary over the course of your trip? It's 30 mph (or kph equivalent) in residential areas, 45 mph on limited access streets, and 65 mph on superhighways? How does the system deal with that?