Solving crime all in a days work for Israeli techie

When Batkid rolled into San Francisco last year and saved a damsel in distress, then thwarted both the Riddler and the Penguin, it was huge news.

But what about the 45-year-old non-caped crusader from Moraga who helped East Bay police track down a ring of computer thieves?

For real.

Zur when he served with the Israel Navy photos/courtesy of ofer zur

His name is Ofer Zur, and his everyday job is running a company that provides tech support to businesses in the East Bay. But the native of the small central Israeli town of Tel Mond will never forget the time three years ago when he figuratively traded in his khakis and button-down shirts for a superhero’s outfit. Or at least a frumpy, Columbo-like raincoat.

Here’s how it went down:

In the summer of 2011, a longtime client of Zur’s company called with some bad news: Burglars had stolen all of her office’s computer equipment, including a brand-new laptop Zur had configured for her just weeks earlier.

Instead of simply commiserating with his client — and also going well beyond a simple request to provide the computer’s serial number to the police — Zur set out to track down the computer thieves himself.

He had a hunch that if the thief had used the stolen computer to access the Internet, Zur might be able to use security software his company had installed to track the laptop’s location.

“I’m saying to myself … ‘What’s the chance that the person that stole the laptop would be stupid enough to go and plug it in?’ ” Zur recalled thinking.

Sure enough, Zur was able to ascertain that the laptop had been connected to the Internet through a Canadian company. Now, clearly wearing his detective hat, he knew that just didn’t add up.

“How could it be that in less than 24 hours, a person comes to Danville, empties out an office and the guy is back and working for a Canadian company?” Zur said.

Time to let the police step in, right? Nope. Calling the company himself, Zur discovered the Canadian outfit was a provider of wireless Internet to hotels around North America, and a little more probing revealed that the network the laptop had logged into was at a Hyatt hotel in the East Bay city of Dublin.

In fact, a representative of the Internet provider told Zur that the laptop was logged on at that precise moment at the same hotel! In the next 15 minutes, Zur said he gave Danville police the location of the stolen computer.

The long arm of the law took over from there, raiding the hotel room and locating all of the stolen equipment. But there’s more: A search of the suspect’s house revealed a stockpile of “three to five years’” worth of stolen electronics loot.

Ofer Zur in Walnut Creek office

Moreover, Zur wasn’t done quite yet. When he went to reset his client’s laptop, he uncovered a list of credit card numbers and cellphone photos of East Bay homes and businesses, presumably locations being scouted out by the band of thieves.

According to Zur, that original bust in Dublin led to police tapping into an underworld of computer thievery in the Bay Area, which in turn led to another bust.

Detective Anthony Perry of the Danville Police Department confirmed Zur’s assistance in solving the case. Zur took his success as a sleuth in stride.

“I’m not sure that an event like this is a reason to party,” he said. “But we rejoiced that we helped society by stopping a group of thugs from continuing to rob.”

Though he had never helped solve a crime before, Zur, a former combat sailor in the Israel Navy, has never been one to shy away from adventure. In 1992, for example, he moved from Israel to Alaska to work on a crab fishing boat.

After getting injured, he moved to California, studied computers at U.C. Berkeley and founded OZtechs in 2001.

Married with three children, Zur serves on the board at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette. His family recently “adopted” a lone soldier in Israel through the Friends of the IDF. A lone soldier is someone from the diaspora serving in the Israeli military who doesn’t have any family in Israel.

Jonathan Bernstein is the S.F.-based regional director of the Friends of the IDF. In talking about Zur, he made the point that Israelis generally are more capable of handling whatever gets thrown their way — largely due to the fact that military service is required.

“Because everyone in Israel serves, you have to learn how to adapt and include everyone,” Bernstein said. “It’s a very entrepreneurial environment, and so you find that in the high-tech field in general — in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. There are a lot of success stories from people who have served.”

True enough, but how many of them help bust a gang of thieves?

Arno Rosenfeld
Arno Rosenfeld

Arno Rosenfeld is a reporter at the Forward. He is a former J. intern and has worked as a correspondent for JTA and The Times of Israel.