Expat Essentials

DIY Expat: Did thieves use CrimeTech to steal our laptop? (updated)

(Editor’s note: This post was updated with new information.)

Back in 2017, our car was broken into in a parking garage on High Tech Campus Eindhoven, a research park in a city with – like most of the Netherlands – a very low crime rate. The thieves made off with our Apple MacBook Pro, an essential piece of equipment we need to keep Dispatches running.

Since the theft happened in the middle of the day, and no surrounding cars were broken into, we suspected we were targeted. We just didn’t know how. It turns out we were victims of a new technology. And we’re far from alone.

During the past two years, we’ve found out CrimeTech signal-detection equipment to steal laptops is becoming a bigger problem. For example, Jim, an American expat in Amsterdam, sent us an email recently telling us he was at dinner when “some low-life criminal decided to break into the car and steal (my) computer.”

Jim was parked in the Arena parking near Biljmer Station when thieves knocked out the window and made off with his 1900 euro Dell XPS 1 … and his incident includes elements similar to what happened to us.

We got hit while I was at meetings at High Tech Campus Eindhoven while my wife and co-CEO Cheryl was meeting with officials at Eindhoven Airport. She drove back to pick me up at 12:15 P.M., and parked our Honda CR-V on level 6 of the P3 garage on the sprawling HTC campus.

My meeting ran over, so she grabbed lunch. We met up at 12:30, then walked to the garage at 1 p.m.

As we exited the stairwell and started walking toward the car, Cheryl just said, “Oh, no ….” The window was smashed and glass was everywhere. Cheryl’s 300 euro Lodis bag was gone, as was the brand new 1,700 euro Apple MacBook Pro inside it.

This is a lessons-driven post for other DIY expats, and the lesson here is, “Never, ever, ever leave your laptop in a car for even a few minutes.” Even on a high-tech campus where the crime rate is zero in a country where they’re closing prisons because there are not enough criminals.

The most painful lesson is the companies that operate the parking garages know all about this, as do the police, but don’t seem to care enough  to warn the public this is becoming epidemic. So we’re telling you ….

NO ORDINARY THIEVES

We knew instantly our break-in wasn’t a simple smash-and-grab.

• Cheryl’s laptop bag wouldn’t have been visible unless the thief literally stood next to the car and pressed his face against the window. It was in a non-descript black leather bag lying flat on the floor of the car. The lights weren’t working properly in that section of the garage, and it would have been difficult to see the bag against the black floor mat unless you knew it was there.

• There were other cars around ours, but ours was the only one hit. And it was the middle of the day on a campus where 12,000 people work. Either these guys were bold, or they had an edge.

• Other than the broken window, our car wasn’t disturbed. There were other items inside including a GPS, yet only the bag and laptop were taken … and it appeared the thieves were only in the car for an instant.

• The thieves had to have struck within minutes after Cheryl parked the car. Did they see her leaving her meeting at the airport and follow her to High Tech Campus, about three miles? That seems unlikely.

What is more likely is that we’d stumbled into a new technology that allows thieves to locate electronic devices such as laptops in cars by detecting the wi-fi signal, even if the laptop is closed and in sleep mode. An Eindhoven policewoman confirmed this technology exists, and it uses the wi-fi signal. Referring to our case documents and surveillance footage (we were never allowed to see), she told us a car pulled up next to our car in the parking garage because the device has to be close to the car to detect the laptop.

It’s possible the thieves’ car was stolen (duh) and the thieves weren’t worried about being identified, or the plates were covered.

One of the bizarre elements of what happened to us is that while there’s lots of speculation, there is no authoritative information on the Internet about this new technology. Yet when we talked to multiple sources about this, everyone from police to the insurance people knew about it.

SIMILAR DETAILS IN AMSTERDAM

Jim said Amsterdam police and the parking attendants told him the same thing –  thieves now have devices that can detect computers. But the police gave him more info, mentioning they suspect a crime family living outside Amsterdam with connections abroad might be behind this new high-tech

Another similarity in our cases is that pretty much no one cared.

“Unfortunately, I have not heard anything from the parking (workers) or the police yet, and I was curious if how your situation evolved, and if you had heard anything back from the police or the parking structure?” Jim wrote.

In our case, parking garage security, the insurance company and police were very nonchalant. The theft had JUST happened when we quickly went to the High Tech Campus security guard. He could have looked at the footage and seen the car or person who stole my laptop in the past 30 minutes. All he did was give us a slip of paper with an email address on it and told us to send a message explaining what happened.

He then directed us to the Eindhoven police to do a report. We told him there was broken glass everywhere and he did not react, nor did he seem surprised at the way our car was targeted. We were most surprised that the HTC parking personnel wouldn’t share any information with us, directing us to the police. Who have bigger issues to worry about than naive expats. So we did our own research.

EVERYONE KNEW EXCEPT US

As we were filing the insurance claim with ABN AMRO shortly after the incident, one of the representatives stated matter-of-factly that we may have been victims of thieves using “scanners.”

Huh?

We heard it again from people who work on the campus. The explanations of how the scanners work vary with whom you’re talking. So, can thieves really drive around a parking garage and detect laptops in cars? We never got a definitive answer, but everyone seems to know about this “innovation.”

At first, we were told the thieves have devices that can detect lithium batteries, which apparently isn’t accurate. Lithium has no chemical signature that can be detected at a distance.

What is at least feasible is that thieves have adapted RECCO technology used to detect people buried in avalanches … devices that detect communications spectra computers give off such as Bluetooth, which is a radio spectrum.

The insurance agent paid us a visit at our house, supposedly because of the size of the claim. He said they see these kinds of thefts all the time. He told us a lot of Eastern Europeans come to the Netherlands and scan for laptops left on, quickly take them and resell them. Some of these thieves drive into neighborhoods, see the largest smart TVs through the windows and come back and steal them.  “What are you going to do? Put away your TV every night so it’s not stolen?” the agent said.

Shockingly, there is no current definitive info on the Internet, nor did the Eindhoven police we talked with mention scanners. This post, “Lithium battery detectors, myth or reality?” I found on a French tech firm’s website is one of the better posts. It rules out lithium batteries as the problem, but states that “certain computers continue to emit in cellular radio mode, WIFI or Bluetooth even when in sleep mode,” monitoring for new servers or connections.

Since our theft, we found far more stories from far more mainstream sources saying CrimeTech inventors have new technology they can use to steal your car, laptop and all. And do it really easily. Wired magazine posted in April how Chinese techies demonstrated at Amsterdam’s Hack in the Box Security Conference two inexpensive radio devices that spoof keyless entry systems on cars. As if you need something else to worry about ….

Technology is great until savvy criminals start using it against us.

More lessons learned:

• One of the great features of Macs is you can lock them after the fact so thieves have a harder time accessing sensitive data. So when the thief tried to access data, they got this message from Cheryl: “Burn in hell, asshole.”

But the truth is, you should never keep unencrypted bank account or charge card passwords or whatever on your laptop.

• When we went to campus security, the guard there informed us we couldn’t look at the garage video without a document from the police. Which would have solved our little mystery. Jeez.

• We went to the Dutch police, who were friendly, helpful and totally fluent in English. They offered us tea and coffee. Our police officer Franca actually gave us her personal cell number if we needed to follow up. They didn’t really do much otherwise except give us the official report we can take back to the garage to get them to show us the video. That and tell us to always have your computer serial numbers handy … and don’t fall into a false sense of security. This is the Netherlands, not Utopia.

• If your car gets broken into, write down all details before you go to security people or the police including where the car was – north, south, east, west – in the garage or parking lot.

• Insure your computers including desktops and smartphones because bad things happen.

• Apparently, the thieves’ device is easy to defeat. Simply turning off your device makes it invisible. Also, a physicist told us that if the device is in a Faraday Cage – basically a metal box – the magnetic field is contained and undetectable. So, if you must leave your laptop in your car, a good place to put it might be the trunk. Or if you have a hatchback, you could stash it in the spare tire compartment.

BUT, if you really want to keep your laptop safe, take it with you. Everywhere. You’re risking losing it if you leave it in your vehicle for even a few minutes.

If you live in Eindhoven, the police have a pretty good website where all big current cases across the Netherlands are posted.

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