Tracking saves the day. $3000 of equipment, and thief, found!

Updated on 13 May 2015 by

I wrote last Thursday about how my old technology would be useful while I was away on a weekender but something happened during my weekend in Holland that puts another angle on the tactic. Perhaps an expensive smartphone is worth taking with you because we had over $3000 of smartphones and laptops stolen from a holiday home at the weekend and because one of the stolen items had GPS tracking enabled we were able, with the help of local police, to find the equipment and thief in under 2 hours.


‘Headless’ friends in Holland wish to remain anonymous.

We have worked out that at around 8:00 PM on Saturday evening someone walked into the open patio door of the holiday home on the left (just out of picture – we had two houses for 10 people,) picked up whatever they could easily lay their hands-on and walked out of the house within a minute or two, while we were just meters away eating our dinner. As one of our group went back inside the house what must have been just minutes later they noticed an upside down bag…and a missing smartphone…and another missing smartphone…and two missing laptops. Yes, we should have taken more care. Fortunately my equipment was in the other, occupied, house.

Find My iPhone example

Find My iPhone example

The exciting bit starts when we find out that one of the smartphones, an iPhone 6, has roaming data enabled (we’re out of our home country) and is configured for tracking.  We used the Find My iPhone app on another iPhone to track the lost phone and within 30 minutes the police were using the information to track the thief, who hadn’t thought to turn the phone off. According to the police report and a news item in the local newspaper the 23-year old thief was found getting off a bus in a nearby town where they dumped the bag and were quickly arrested and taken to the police station. He spent the night in the cells and after 4 hours of paperwork we got everything back except 70 Euros that had been taken and was never found.

Police direction using iPhone tracking.

As it happened: Police using iPhone tracking, directing colleagues in a nearby town.

I’ve learnt a number of things from the experience that I want to share:

  • GPS tracking is worth having. Old hardware may not be easily trackable.  I also suggest that local police will react more quickly to a location on a moving map than other methods of tracking that require time, paperwork or higher-level approval. The live information we gave to the police prompted an instant reaction.
  • People have different values associated with their equipment and data. PC and phone hardware has a value, regardless of the data that’s on it and each person, depending on insurance and finances, will value their hardware differently. I was prepared to lose the old Acer W510 I had with me. A friend of mine was not ready to lose his Macbook.
  • Local data storage was a real worry for the owner of one of the laptops. They had a backup system, but weren’t sure if it was recent.
  • Misuse of personal data and accounts on devices was a worry for everyone. Data encryption, good passwords and strong boot-up security (secure boot, BIOS password) can help here. At least one person in our group has now turned on Bitlocker on their Windows Pro operating system.
  • I’ve enabled and tested tracking on my Lumia 830 now although I’m still considering the privacy risks of leaving location on for all applications. [I suspect if I turn location off that ‘find my phone’ will not be as accurate but I’m not sure if ‘find my phone’ overrides location settings.] I also like that it can use SMS because that works in roaming situations where data is disabled.

I don’t use any Apple hardware but I will be looking into accurate Windows PC location tracking with the HP Stream 8 (includes free roaming data that could help in tracking activities, even across borders.) For Windows Phone, the Find My Phone service can be found under Devices in your online Microsoft Account here. You must also enable it in the settings on your phone. Location tracking of events on Windows 8.1 (for laptops and tablets) is also available if you use a Microsoft account as a login. See the Activity option under Security and Privacy in your Microsoft account here.

Microsoft Find my Phone feature.

Microsoft Find my Phone feature. It’s correctly located my phone as I am connected and have Location enabled.


On behalf of all of our group I would like to thank the police in Zandvoort and Haarlem for their support and skills.

Have you had a smartphone or laptop stolen recently? If so, let us know how you dealt with the situation.

And finally…don’t try and recover a stolen phone without police help.

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1 Comments For This Post

  1. animatio says:

    well yes, these groups of thieves are present and active all over europe, specially on parking lots of supermarkets and highway rests.
    the main lessons must be: never let doors open without surveillance! never let baggage lurk without surveillance too! not even for a “split second”. its sad, but times have changed a lot with all these people of questionable origins around everywhere.

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