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Vancouver realtor pulls the plug on U.S. laptop ring

It had elements of a sophisticated scam -- several teenage boys slipped into two elementary schools in a sleepy Florida suburb, stole away with school laptops, and sold them over eBay to buyers as far away as New York and Vancouver.

But when Vancouver real estate agent Keith Roy noticed the laptop he bought was full of programs registered to one of those schools, he blew the whistle, becoming the key witness in a Florida case that would shut down a laptop-stealing ring.

It was Mr. Roy's evidence that poked holes into the amateurish side of the scheme: The boys didn't wipe clean the hard drives of the laptops; they used one mother's eBay account, and accepted money orders with their real names.

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"It was shifty from the beginning, there," Mr. Roy said, adding he had no choice but to notify the Florida authorities.

"At the end of the day, the last place I'm going to steal a computer from is elementary school kids from Broward County, Fla.," he added.

In April of 2006, a door lock was jimmied at the Mirror Lake Elementary School in Plantation, Fla., a suburb of Ft. Lauderdale. One laptop left in the hands of a boy who was already doing community service at the school for a previous crime, Florida police say.

In a private school across town, St. Gregory's, three other laptops were taken, all without damage to the doors or the schools.

Police say one boy sold one laptop to his friend for $25. That friend got together with another friend, and posted the computers on the Internet for prices in the neighbourhood of $900 -- a hefty profit.

That's when Mr. Roy ordered one white Apple iBook online. He didn't have enough money in his PayPal account, but arranged that he would pay a money order to one boy.

Much of the communication was through an e-mail address owned by one boy's mother and several telephone conversations at 5 a.m. Pacific time -- the boys didn't understand the time zone difference between East and West Coast -- Mr. Roy said.

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When the laptop finally arrived, Mr. Roy found that it was full of many programs for which he hadn't paid, and that each of the programs was registered to Mirror Lake Elementary School.

"It didn't take a lot of effort to figure out it was stolen -- that was easy," he said.

A single phone call to Mirror Lake confirmed that a laptop had been stolen.

Police took statements from Mr. Roy, took copies of the e-mails, and culled the boys' names and addresses from the correspondence.

Plantation, Fla., police followed the paper trail straight to the ring. Last week, Mr. Roy flew to Florida to testify against a 14-year-old mastermind, who pleaded no contest.

"This is a bigger case than Mr. Roy even knew," said Plantation police Detective Robert Rettig, who managed the investigation. "It's not often that I recover stolen property in another country . . . . The Canadian, Mr. Roy, deserves a lot of credit."

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The police later found that one buyer in New York insisted that his laptop be sent to a different address than was on their PayPal account. Skittish, the boys sent the laptop to the registered address.

The laptop ended up on the doorstep of the real owner of the PayPal account, who found out the hard way that his PayPalaccount had been hacked to buy a laptop with his money.

"It was a criminal preying on a criminal," Det. Rettig said.

Mr. Roy eventually gave the computer to the Vancouver police department, which forwarded it to Mirror Lake.

"We were thrilled to get the laptop back, obviously," Mirror Lake principal Mary Ellen Bouchie said in an interview.

Catherine England, a spokeswoman for eBay, said that the site has more than 222 million account holders around the world, and it's important that buyers and sellers are vigilant against fraud.

She said eBay never assumes ownership of whatever is sold, it just provides a marketplace for it.

The site has three levels of teams which act to protect the market: a technical team that flags suspicious buying patterns; a team that checks with individual buyers if any suspicion is raised; and a team that works with law enforcement when there's cause to investigate fraud, Ms. England said.

Although some boys have yet to enter a plea, the judge ordered them to pool their money and pay back Mr. Roy for the laptop he bought, as well as his trip to Florida.

"But it wasn't about the money," he said. "It's about being honest -- and getting what you paid for."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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