Five Ways a Thief Can Profit From Your Stolen Hardware

Philip Bates 24-04-2015

Criminals steal your PC, your laptop, your smartphone – by burglarizing your house or by snatching them from you. Then what happens?


The problem with the everyday is complacency. The majority of us have smartphones and we don’t think twice about grabbing them from our pockets to answer a text. This makes us targets. One technique commonly takes place at bus stops. You get your phone out, and a thief takes you by surprise by simply slapping it out of your hand and running. They immediately catch you on the back foot.

But what can they do with your stolen tech…?

Selling Your Device


Even a second-hand laptop can get $50, $150, maybe $300. It obviously all depends on the model. A quick look on eBay and you’ll find bids reaching around $700 for particular makes. Many of these will just be innocent enough transactions, but it does show the cash criminals can get for used devices.

If we turn to Cash Generator, a UK-wide pawn broker, prices for laptops typically sit between £150 and £200 (US$222- $297).


Turning back to eBay, the price for a used, unlocked iPhone 6 (64GB) is hard to find below $600. And it doesn’t matter if the screen is cracked either: that can still fetch around $400! The 5s is naturally cheaper, but they typically make about $300 anyway.

It’s astounding how easy it is to sell a stolen device on, whether that’s online or face-to-face in a pawnbroker or at a yard sale.

Selling Individual Components


A complete device can fetch great amounts of cash, but so too can selling individual components – a bit like using an old second-hand car for parts.


Again, this largely depends on how new the stolen PC is, what equipment is inside, capacity, and what condition it’s in. However, the Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) What Is the Difference Between an APU, CPU, and GPU? Confused about computer processor acronyms? It's time to learn the difference between an APU, CPU, and GPU. Read More has a typically high price point – warranting between $100 and $200 on eBay – as has an up-to-date Central Processing Unit (CPU), though these do vary wildly in cost. The chassis, too, can demand a good sum of cash, with many reaching around $100 on eBay. In exceptional cases, such as this Lian Li Aluminum ATX Chassis, they can get over $1000!

Further components are worth less, particularly the heat sink, but as the old saying goes, this all adds up – and bypasses some risks criminals can be forced to take. But there’s an even simpler way…

Returning It To You!


This sounds absolutely bizarre, but some thieves, after a quick monetary fix, might steal your smartphone – and then give it back to you!


Selling on a phone can leave criminals vulnerable, and in some cases, it’s pretty pointless. iOS 7 A Complete Beginner's Guide to iOS 11 for iPhone & iPad Here's everything you need to know to get started with iOS 11. Read More introduced Activation Lock, which will insist on your Apple ID and password before doing anything at all. Apple won’t even unlock it. Google and Windows have also added similar features. In London last year, smartphone thefts fell Deterring Smartphone Thefts With Kill Switches, Windows XP Needs To Die, And More... [Tech News Digest] BlackBerry posts surprise profit, Valve launches Steam Summer Sale, a U.S. college offers athletic scholarships to professional gamers, eBay Valet sells your unwanted stuff for you, and Conan O'Brien shows off at E3 2014. Read More by 50%, 27% in San Francisco, and 16% in New York – all attributed to the Kill Switch.

Of course, if that doesn’t work, you could always try uglification… The Art of Stopping Phone Thieves With Uglification Smartphone theft worldwide reached epidemic proportions in 2013, prompting manufacturers, like Samsung, to announce plans to create a device kill-switch. The kill-switch design will turn stolen phones into lifeless hunks of glass and plastic. Can... Read More

However, it appears that criminals are ganging up to enact a theft and swift recovery. The scam essentially consists of a seeming Good Samaritan recovering your smartphone – likely after chasing the assailant down, but ultimately leaving them to escape – and returning it to you. After some verbal gratitude, the do-gooder will cleverly hint at monetary recompense.

San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr told the San Fransisco Examiner that this is often $20, “more than I can get for selling [crack cocaine].”


Blackmailing You


Obviously, this depends on largely on what material you store on your PC, laptop, or smartphone, but blackmail is a potentially very lucrative way of profiting from stolen devices.

Last year was particularly notable for its high-profile blackmail cases. Sony was victim of a particularly scary hacking attack, with listed zip files and this warning: “We’ve obtained all your [internal] data, [including] your secrets and top secrets. If you don’t obey us, we’ll release data shown below to the world.” Golfer, Dustin Johnson, too, was allegedly threatened by his former attorneys to “disclose private and confidential information about Mr. Johnson, which they learned in the course of their representation of Mr. Johnson , should he commence a lawsuit to seek repayment” of $3 million supposedly stolen by them.

‘Celebrity’ can be used against those in the spotlight, but in his book, Computer-Related Risks, Peter Neumann highlighted the potential concerns about specific jobs being targeted – in particular medical professionals. After PCs were reported stolen from doctors, he notes: “Perhaps the motive was merely theft of equipment, but the systems contained sensitive data that could be used for blackmail or defamation.”

And while the leak of personal information is very worrying, sextortion is one of the most prevalent, potentially-devastating examples of blackmail. The use of explicit material (videos or images) as leverage to obtain money or further sexual acts is on the increase, according to the FBI. The recent phenomenon of sextortion has also evolved Sextortion Has Evolved And It's Scarier Than Ever Sextortion is an abhorrent, prevalent blackmailing technique targeting young and old, and is now even more intimidating thanks to social networks like Facebook. What can you do to protect yourself from these seedy cybercriminals? Read More to gain greater dominance over victims. One disturbing case resulted in the suicide of a 24-year-old whose laptop was stolen, followed by the threat of leaking NSFW footage.

If your computer, smartphone, or tablet contains adult content either of yourself or a partner, you could be vulnerable to extortionists.

Becoming You


Any stolen data about you can be sold on to ID criminals on a black market. According to a report by PandaLabs, your credit card details can be worth as little as $2.

Data is often obtained using malware, but stolen hardware also contains revealing personal information. Thanks to cookies What Is a Website Cookie? How Cookies Affect Your Online Privacy You've heard of internet cookies, but what exactly are they? What do they have to do with your privacy? Here's what you need to know. Read More , criminals could log into your emails, social networking, and PayPal. There are plenty of reasons to use online banking 6 Common Sense Reasons Why You Should Bank Online If You Aren't Already [Opinion] How do you usually do your banking? Do you drive to your bank? Do you wait in long lines, just to deposit one check? Do you receive monthly paper statements? Do you file away those... Read More , but that too could be vulnerable.

Because everything is stored to your Hard Disk Drive (HDD). That’s your programs, documents, images, downloads, and sites you’ve visited: all this is stored in cache folders as default. Browser cache is typically written over when it’s excessive; otherwise, you’ll need to clear cache now and again.

This data can either be sold on, used by the original thief – or both. ID theft is a very real problem: aside from blackmail, criminals might take over your Facebook to get hints about further passwords or your PIN. A thief could acquire a credit card in your name, given enough personal information. Safety nets put in place by governments and banks could limit your losses, but nonetheless, the FDIC warns, “innocent victims are likely to face long hours (and sometimes years) closing tarnished accounts and opening new ones, fixing credit records, and otherwise cleaning up the damage. They also may find themselves being denied loans, jobs and other opportunities because an identity theft ruined their reputation and credit rating.”

What Can You Do About It?


Being a victim of theft is a truly awful thing, even if it goes no further. But you’re not helpless.

Deleting cookies and cache can be annoying when inputting your email countless times to access all your accounts, but it’s worth it. You can permanently get rid of data from your hard drive 5 Tools To Permanently Delete Sensitive Data From Your Hard Drive [Windows] In a recent article I explained why it is impossible to recover data from a hard drive after overwriting it. In that post I mentioned that simply deleting files or formatting your hard drive typically... Read More . Or if you’re really pushed, you can erase it completely How to Completely Wipe a Hard Drive There are two ways to wire a hard drive. Here's what you need to know to get it done quick and easy. Read More or destroy it.

The most important thing is to be vigilant. Stay sceptical. Protect your smartphone or tablet: don’t be so quick to answer an SMS when you’re not sure of the environment or the people you’re surrounded by. It can wait until you’re safe. This is what you should do if your smartphone is stolen So Your iPhone Was Lost or Stolen? Here's What to Do If your iPhone was lost or stolen, here's how to locate, recover, and block your iPhone to protect your data. Read More .

And if someone really is a Good Samaritan, they’d get pleasure from returning a device to you, not from receiving monetary recompense.

What other tips have you got? Do you have further words of warning? Let us know below.

Image Credits: The price of a soul by Damian Gadal; My Pocket Contents by William Hook; hard disk 6 by Uncle Saiful; lr-processed-0403 by Ritesh Nayak; Attention Thieves by rick; Watch it or lose it by Tristan Schmurr; Identity Theft by Got Credit.

Related topics: Computer Security, Smartphone Security.

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  1. Anonymous
    July 6, 2016 at 11:27 am

    I hate when they steal something. Some ways of preventing them to sell it on would be useful

  2. InfoSecDude
    April 26, 2015 at 5:13 pm

    Uglification is a good idea > write on your laptop "broken, take to e-waste".. Also, having dummy devices around is a good trick, such as broken laptops and cell phones that look good. Yup, worthless props to make the thieves think they got what they came for.

  3. A41202813GMAIL
    April 25, 2015 at 5:41 pm

    Using A Moving Company When You Change Residence, The Chance Of Having Items *Disappear* Between The Former And The Latter Are Huge.


  4. dragonmouth
    April 24, 2015 at 7:05 pm

    (S)extortionists do not need to steal your PC, laptop or phone. They just have to wait till you throw it out. I refurbish and sell computers that people throw out. If I wanted to, I could make a lot of money from blackmailing the ex-owners with the information they leave on their discarded computers. Almost every computer I pick up has some porn on it. Many have the ex-users financial records. A surprising number have compromising selfies. I have yet to find a discarded computer with an encrypted hard drive. People are their own worst enemies. Very few, if any, take even the most basic precautions to protect themselves and their families.

  5. djbtwcny
    April 24, 2015 at 4:22 pm

    Getting over $1000 for a chassis that sells for about $300 brand new would be an exceptional case indeed. Perhaps you should consider doing some basic research before reporting such nonsense.