Laptop theft creates crisis for Rutgers student

Posted: April 28, 2013

A Rutgers University student is in dire straits for a common foible - failing to back up stuff on the computer.

Five years of the student's doctoral research disappeared last week. It had been kept on a laptop that was stolen April 19 from a university chemistry building in New Brunswick, N.J.

With his thesis defense looming, the chemistry doctoral student put up fliers around campus offering to pay $1,000 to get his research back.

"If you stole my laptop and now you are reading this letter, I would like to say that you can keep the computer and I would like to pay you money for my data under D drive. The data is my FIVE-YEAR work," the flier reads, describing the computer folder holding his thesis information.

"I only need that folder for my thesis defense, which is coming very soon. I would like to pay you $1,000 and use whatever way you offer to send you the money. The price is negotiable. . . . PLEASE contact me and I would appreciate it so so much!!!"

His plight has spread quickly online.

Another graduate student saw the flier Tuesday and posted a photo of it to Facebook. By Friday, the photo had been shared more than 30,000 times, in part due to its popularity on Reddit, the social sharing and discussion site.

The laptop, a Lenovo ThinkPad T420s, was taken from Room 203 of the Wright-Rieman Laboratories building, according to the flier. The flier, which includes an e-mail address and phone number, is unsigned.

Reached by e-mail, the student declined to comment and requested that his name not be published. He has been identified elsewhere.

After the disappearance of his laptop, he filed a theft report with Rutgers police. The investigation remains open and police have "more than one lead," said Lt. Paul Fischer, a spokesman for the department.

And while the public campaign to get the student's data back may be attracting attention, Fischer said, the tactic is not recommended.

It "invites fraud, which can, frankly, compound the original loss," Fischer said of the offer to pay for the safe return of the data. "I wouldn't recommend it. As a police department, we focus on, prior to the actual theft, education as far as not leaving your belongings unattended."

Items of value should not be left unattended, even in familiar environments like workspaces, Fischer said.

Still, Fischer said, the focus is not on victim-blaming or embarrassing the student. Instead, the high-profile case can serve as a lesson for others to keep an eye on their belongings and, crucially, back up their data regularly.

"It's sad, but it happened. It happened, now you can't do anything, you cannot undo it. Now it can teach other people some lessons about what they can be doing to not be in the same situation," said Prasad Subramaniam, a sixth-year chemistry doctoral student at Rutgers. "Even as a first-year [student], you are supposed to have a backup of everything."

Subramaniam said he hopes faculty advisers will help encourage students to back up their data regularly.

The laptop theft is being treated by police as a crime of opportunity, not a targeted theft. But other calamities can happen, Subramaniam said, including crashed hard drives and electrical surges that destroy data.

The viral nature of the story's spread meant that word of what normally might be an ordinary laptop theft traveled quickly from the New Brunswick campus to Camden.

"I haven't seen any so widespread a search for a student's property during my time at Rutgers-Camden," said spokesman Michael Sepanic, who has been at the school since 1989.

"I felt badly for the student. Doing work to defend a Ph.D. dissertation is career-defining. To lose that work certainly is stressful, and I found myself pulling for him and hoping that somehow the laptop turns up."


Contact Jonathan Lai at 856-779-3220, jlai@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @elaijuh.

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