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Wireless technology may lead police to stolen camera

Jeffrey Plotkin thought he'd never see his camera again — until pictures taken on it began streaming onto his computer. Before the battery died, he received 11 images that may help police find the thief.

August 15, 2011|By Bob Pool, Los Angeles Times
  • Jeffrey D. Plotkin sits in his office at Plotkin Family Chiropractic in Canoga Park. Two months ago his briefcase was stolen from this office and inside it was his Finepix W3 3D camera. He had a Eye-Fi card in the camera. This morning photos from his stolen camera started appearing on his laptop. The photos appear to be gang members flashing gang signs.
Jeffrey D. Plotkin sits in his office at Plotkin Family Chiropractic in… (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)

Modern technology seemed on the verge of helping to solve a west San Fernando Valley burglary. But then a different kind of high tech dashed Los Angeles police investigators' hopes.

In March a thief stole a $700 digital camera from Dr. Jeffrey Plotkin's Canoga Park chiropractic office. Two months later, photographs being taken by the missing camera suddenly began popping up on Plotkin's computer screen.

First came an image of a group of young people in what looked like a parking lot. Then others arrived, some snapped at a party and one depicting a young man flashing a gang sign. Soon, a puzzled Plotkin was looking at 11 of the strange images on his computer.

"My first thought was, 'What is this? Who are these people?' " he said.

Then Plotkin remembered that he had equipped his Fuji three-dimensional camera with a device that wirelessly transmits its photos directly into his computer.

The 11 photographs apparently depicted the thief and his friends.

Case closed, Plotkin thought. "They've nailed themselves," he said.

But as is often the case with modern technology, things didn't turn out to be that simple.

Although Plotkin had filed a police report immediately after discovering the March 30 theft, investigators initially had little to go on. They rolled their eyes on May 25 when Plotkin told them that the culprit was sending him photographs from the stolen camera.

"The police thought I was a nut. It didn't make sense to them," he said.

Authorities became more interested after Plotkin explained that his camera contained an Eye-Fi card, which can transmit photos to his computer from as far as 90 feet away.

Plotkin handed over copies of the photographs, and detectives searched in the vicinity of the clinic for familiar-looking faces but came up empty-handed.

Then, as abruptly as it started, the flow of pictures from the stolen camera dried up. Plotkin concluded that the camera's proprietary lithium-ion battery died and that the thief had no way to charge it because he had not stolen its charger.

The thief had posed as a potential patient at the clinic, operated by Plotkin and his wife, Dr. Tamara Plotkin.

"He asked to use the bathroom and, while I was down the hall, he broke into my office and stole the camera and a briefcase," he said. "I'd never seen him before; I found out later that he gave me a fake name and phone number."

Plotkin said he misses the monogrammed briefcase more than the camera. "It was a gift from my mom, who died a year ago. She gave it to me when I got my doctorate."

Besides transmitting photos wirelessly into computers, the Eye-Fi device also has a geotagging feature that adds the location the photo was taken to the image, said Randhir Vieira, an executive of the Mountain View, Calif., company that produces it.

Vieira said the card also works from open Wi-Fi connections if the camera is more than 90 feet from the host computer. He said the card has helped recover stolen cameras in the past.

Unfortunately, Plotkin had not switched on the Eye-Fi's geotagging function.

Some law enforcement agencies have been slow to embrace these types of new technology, which use such things as GPS and cellphone triangulation along with Wi-Fi to track the whereabouts of electronic equipment.

Authorities in Moraga appeared to have had a similar initial reaction when Michael Kuzmack reported the theft of his Toshiba laptop from the cafeteria at Saint Mary's College of California last September. The laptop was equipped with tracking software, which Kuzmack immediately activated.

When the thief finally switched on his computer, it began e-mailing photos from the laptop camera and a map that showed the location it was transmitting from. Over the next few months the 19-year-old accounting student received some 1,500 email notifications from the GadgetTrak software.

"I went to the police and sent them all the information, but I never really heard back from them," Kuzmack said. Finally, GadgetTrak's chief executive, Ken Westin, intervened on his behalf. Even after that, Moraga police investigators "blew him off for a month," Kuzmack said.

Six months after the theft, police recovered Kuzmack's laptop from a Richmond resident. The man said he had been given the computer as a gift. Because he did not resemble the person pictured by the computer immediately after the theft, he was not arrested.

At UCLA, campus police take the tracking technology seriously. Last month, they arrested a point guard on the basketball team on suspicion of stealing a MacBook that was equipped with tracking software. Jerime Anderson was suspended indefinitely from the team and charged with grand theft.

Tracking software "is a good tool that we promote use of," said campus police Officer James Echols, who heads the department's crime prevention program. "If we have a lead, we follow it, even if the stolen item is only a cellphone. You don't know what doors an investigation will open."

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