How to Spot Stolen Hardware – And Why You Should Refuse to Work on It

Stolen hardware

In the past few days I have written about how to gain access to a Windows user account and how to bypass a BIOS password. These are great skills to know but you need to be careful how they are used. For example, you don’t want to be removing the passwords for theives on stolen hardware. In this article, we’ll show you how to spot potentially stolen hardware.


I have had a few shady people bring in some laptops which I am pretty sure were stolen. One time a young man in his mid 20’s brought in a new laptop. This laptop appears to be only a few months old as it had some pretty cutting edge hardware. Anyway, he asked me to remove the BIOS boot password and I asked him “do you have any idea who could have put it on there?” (so he could ask them) and he said it came like that.

Now I don’t usually like be nosy and quiz my clients, but some red flags were popping up with this guy. So I asked him whether he had the manual or some other documentation that came with the system because if “it came like that”, the password would most likely be on the documentation. Fumbling for words, he said he lost the manual.

I then asked him who he got it from using the excuse “so I can give them a call and ask them what it could be” and once again fumbling for words he said a friend gave it to him.

At this point I knew the computer was stolen. I can understand a lost manual as it does happen, or even someone else putting on a boot password for revenge, but no friends (well, not mine anyway) would give away a cutting edge laptop. Some people might give someone their old laptop because they brought a new one, but I doubt they would give away a brand spanking new one.

I then told him I couldn’t help him and he should try someone else.

Here are some warning signs to look out for when you think a piece of hardware may be stolen
Some of them arent so bad by themself, but when a few of them show up at once, its very suspicious:

  • Computer is passworded
  • Computer came from a “friend of a friend”
  • No Manuals, Drivers or other items that typically come with new hardware
  • Kensington lock slot is damaged (on laptops)
  • Serial Number appears in stolen hardware lists. Apple Macs have many “check your serial to see if its stolen” services such as this and this.
  • Engravings on the case such as “Property of..” or a drivers license number
  • Owner fumbling for words as you ask questions
  • Corporate branding of the computer – backgrounds, computer info, stickers etc..

Why do dont want to deal with these people:
Sure, its all money. Why should I care? Heres why:

  • Its wrong and immoral. What goes around comes around. It could be your hardware on another techies bench one day trying to remove your password
  • These people get to see the inside of your house/workshop/store and see the worth of what you have inside. They also get to see what kind of security you have and scout for possible entry points to the premesis.
  • By removing the password you make it sellable for them. If they make money and it works, then they’ll keep on doing it.

To get rid of them, either tell them that you dont know how to remove it, or you are too busy to get it done in a timely manner.

Has anyone else here come across stolen hardware? If so, what was the story?



Bryce Whitty

About the Author

Bryce Whitty
More articles by me...
Bryce is an Australian computer technician and the founder of Technibble. He started his computer repair business when he was 17 years old and is still running it 9 years later. He is an avid traveller and spends at least a month of the year in another country.

Comments (21)

  • iladelf says:

    I had one guy one time bring by an old sled of a laptop that had no CD-Rom, and he wanted Windows 98 reinstalled on it. Guy just came to my house, banged on the door, walked right in, kind of looked around. Very odd.

    From reading this, yeah, I think that damn grifter was casing the joint. Did I mention when I brought the computer to him, after setting up for him, he asked me if he could pay me next week?

    Yeah, that was about 4 years ago. Lesson learned.

  • Dipper says:

    I had a friend who years ago worked at a pawn broker. He had people bringing in computers to sell with cables (that have been cut in half) still attached!

    Once he also had one which when booted up said it belonged to a certain company. He rang the company and sure enough the night before they had a robbery!

  • Hank says:

    I can think of one more red flag that can in some ways almost be a confirmation of your belief. Tell them it will take X number of days and you need them to sign a form and photo copy thier ID. If they refuse to let you photo copy thier ID they probly are a criminal at this point.

  • JohnR says:

    A friend of mine had his *own* stolen laptop brought back to his computer shop for “repair because I forgot my password” and it had a sticket from his shop and a “warranty repair” phone number listed on it.

    The guy stole it from him, couldn’t get in, looked at the sticker, and figured “Hey, these guys will fix it” – without thinking that MAYBE they might have a record of who that machine belonged to, let alone that it might be an employee’s machine.

    Not a smart thief, that.

  • I’ve not only turned away laptops I thought were stolen, I’ve had a laptop stolen.

    I’m really hoping they bring my own laptop back to me to break the password!

    I’ve been imagining that for a few months now… time to let it go :-(

  • LEO says:

    Look up the phrase “accessory after the fact”. If you should have suspected and you helped – Iron bar hotel is your potential new address.

    They won’t know it was me – who are you kidding? Anyone that would steal a computer will fink on a stranger (i.e. you) to “bargain” with the arresting officer. “Detective – you don’t want me you want the ring leader”

    When he returns to you for a 2nd problem. That may be the bait laptop of your local police department. Then again if someone has already dropped your name as the technical brains behind thefts, maybe the first computer is the bait computer…

  • samuraijk says:

    Well, after reading all the comments I would suggest that, first of all people should take care of the things which are valuable to you and will feel bad when they are away from you. I had one desktop that I loved, but my brother sold it our of 5. I hated him for that, But it was not stolen so I bought it back. Second thing, never buy products which are stolen.

  • mg says:

    Yep yep. Had something similar happen.

    Here’s a clue:

    Asset tag.

    ‘owner’ says they bought the laptop from ‘someone’ who they could no longer communicate with.

    and of course… bios password.

    Was stolen twice! First from the company, and then from the original thief. crazy.

  • tryinghard says:

    Hey Bryce, thank you for this post, not only informative but a good reminder to all of us about choosing to do what is good and honest.

  • Neil says:

    Found this and thought I would share.

    Would be wise to start using it…

    http://www.stolencomputers.org/home.html

    It’s a database of stolen computers which you can add to.

  • Dustin Smith says:

    i had a guy bring me a laptop that he claimed to have gotten off of ebay, it had a windows password. to make a long story short i took it in and removed the windows password, i found a resume in my documents for a young lady in my city, i called her, sure enough her laptop was stolen 4 days prior, she was one of the lucky ones to get her laptop. since then i advertise password cracking just so i can get my hands on a system, if i can prove it to be stolen, it goes right back to the rightful owner.

  • Ron says:

    @Dustin Smith

    Good idea, but you would then be receiving stolen property. I know it’s common sense and the rightful, ethical, and moreal thing(s) to do, all to get the laptop back to the rightful owner, but that’s not your job – it’s the cops.

  • Deeply Shrouded says:

    I have security on all my systems that only
    I know about. It’s instantly identifiable to me
    but a crook wouldn’t have a clue.

  • cesar says:

    I have the entire hard disk encrypted with TrueCrypt :P

  • Joshua says:

    I have only ever had one “lost password”, and the person (or people, a mother and daughter) didn’t raise any red flags, and the laptop didn’t appear new, so I proceeded with it, but I hadn’t thought about it up until then.

    I have also too had a laptop stolen (just the other week), and, since I work in the closest computer shop to the place it was stolen, have been hoping for it to come back for with someone saying “I forgot my password”, but unfortunately that never happened (always something to hope for, as it is very unlikely, but I didn’t have anything on it to be able to track me, so as soon as I found it missing I thought it was as good as gone).

    Still, I think things like a declaration form and possibly an ID photocopy would be a suitable things, and legit clients would (in most cases) be fine with it (especially if I explain why), and those non-legit clients can walk away and go somewhere else. That raises another question though… if you suspect a customer to have a stolen laptop (for good reason, such as a company logo), and they walk away because of too many questions, should you do anything about it? This is similar to the recent article/comments on what to do about pirated software. If it say has a company logo on it, should you record the serial number and contact the company (and even though the customer would be gone, I assume most shops have security cameras)… or should it just be left, as it isn’t your concern (you aren’t working on it). I know if anyone bought my laptop into any shop, and that shop thought it was stolen, for them to check the serial number (as it has been reported stolen with the Police and Dell), though that is a lot of effort, and I don’t think there is an easy way to check it.

  • Bob says:

    Speaking of stolen computers; about 10 years ago, i had worked part time at a pawn shop. This guy came in with a computer that he wanted to sell. The red warning lights went off when I saw an asset label belonging to the local newspaper.

    Now, our shop had a good relationship with the stolen property detective at our local PD. We were advised, that if we suspected something was stolen, to buy it for as little as we could manage to pay out. Then turn the state mandated property form, along with a photo copy of the ID.

    We put out $25 for the machine (it was not the latest); and after concluding the transaction, I called up the newspaper. I spoke to the CFO, who checked their asset list for the number that was shown on the label. It turns out that that machine was disposed of as surplus. In other words, it was NOT stolen. Nevertheless, we turned over the paperwork to the PD. They checked with the newspaper, just to confirm what we were told. It was NOT stolen. Two days after the detective told us that the machine checked out OK, I called the newspaper and reminded them, that when they surplus equipment, it would be nice to remove their asset label. We wasted nearly 2 hours of time dealing with them.

    One other time, I turned down a computer being sold by a woman, that had the name of a local advocacy group on it. This group is notorious for causing problems, and I wanted no part of them.

  • j.b. says:

    I’d like to know what readers here think – should a tech simply refuse to work on hardware they suspect is stolen, or should they report the stolen hardware as well?

  • Bryan says:

    I would take the laptop, remove the password, and then try and contact the owner using the information found on it. I wouldn’t turn the guy in though or the person who owned the laptop if I found potentially illegal stuffs. I’d probably call the thief up and let him know I planned to return it to the rightful owner (assuming I verified it was stolen first by checking its contents and contacting the real owner) and if he’d like to contest it I’d be more than happy to let the police handle it. If he didn’t want to contest it I’d then let him know that he came very close to being royally screwed. People aren’t perfect and letting them know what they are doing is very risky is often just enough to get them to stop. If they continue it very likely is beyond their control for whatever reason. Not everybody has great opportunities in life to get out of jam. Some are born dumb and I don’t think people should suffer for that-or their situation. Even dumb people can work hard and still fail to survive. Stealing is a survival skill and one of few options for allot of people.

    It sucks when you are the one being stolen from-but I believe it means someone else needs it more. If you don’t feel a need to steal then chances are you don’t need what is being stolen from you more than they do.

  • Matt says:

    As a free lance techie (the kind of guy people come to when they can’t afford Best Buy etc for the family computer), I can’t say I’ve had this experience fortunately as I practically know everyone who brings me a computer for repair. Working in IT security for some time though, I do have some input for those techs who say crack the computer open and contact the rightful owner –

    1. Get LE (law enforcement) to take a look first if you have any doubts. The computer may have been reported as stolen to them, and you never know what sensitive information you may find on the rightful owner while snooping around to find their contact info (e.g. credit card information, college transcripts, naughty pictures, etc). Leave the snooping for LE and contact them before you crack it open to save you from some tough questioning as some computer owners if you contact them out of the blue may want to know what you looked at on their system due to proprietary information being stored on their machine.

    2. While not being an accessory is a good stance to fighting the crime, I would actually suggest you hold the computer for a few days while checking up to see if it is stolen while getting contact information for your thief like a phone number. You’d be shocked what you can pull up on a person with just a phone number (intellius.com is a good example and LE has some better connections than that). Try to collect as much information as you can about the thief and hold it for LE. The reason I say this is due to the amount of data espionage out there today. Not every thief will just sell that computer right away, they’ll use the victims personal data for all kinds of stuff (identity theft, banking information, corporate espionage, etc). Even if the thief is not smart enough to crack the computer open, it doesn’t mean they can’t pass it on to someone who is smart enough to use all the information on that computer for some very nasty things.

    3. If you’ve held the computer for a few days, and there are no reports of it being stolen, and no other way of being able to determine what may be the rightful owner… yet you still have that feeling in the gut that it may be stolen, trust that gut feeling. When the potential thief comes back in tell him you tried everything, but couldn’t figure it out and he’ll have to try elsewhere.

    Just my $0.02

  • Mr. Byte says:

    Had this happen when I had my shop.

    Guy drives up in a $200 car with a $1200 laptop. I had the gut telling me something was wrong, but I took it in, and cracked the BIOS pw, then called the dentist whose info was on the machine. It was indeed stolen, I said “come on down and get it” and he even paid me the $90 I would have charged the thief had it been legit. No, I didn’t ask for it, he asked me.

    Turns out, the guy that brought it in wasn’t the thief but a buyer, but he called the next day, and wanted “his” computer back, I told him the story.

    So he calls the cops on me. However the original owner had visited the LEO to make a report and so they came over to me to get my side of the story (A bit of an attitude from them, lost it when I pointed out that the owner got his computer back, and I hadn’t asked nor expected any money from him, and now they had a witness to testify should they press charges against the buyer.)

    All in all not a bad result. I don’t know that they could make “receiving stolen property” stick if you’re taking it in with the intention of locating the owner and returning it to them, but at first the cop that took my info acted like he might try.

    I think getting a copy of ID will scare off all but the dumbest of crooks, and with that and a lawyer, you could fight off any PoSP charge.

    Probably best to establish a contact with the local police, tell them of your plans, and get a contact within the dept. that you can work with, just to avoid the hassles later.

  • jsant says:

    live and learn. I have not given much thoughts into it till now reading all these comments.