Updated: May 23, 2015

Laptop Theft Prevention - How to Protect Your Laptop

It seems in the last 5 years or so, laptops have really become the most prevalent form of computers for most of us, whether at home or at the office. A long time ago, laptops couldn't match the power of desktop PCs, but today the power and flexibility and mobility offered by a laptop computer often outweighs any savings or extra features you might find in a desktop PC model. The good news is that laptops have come way down in price -- you can easily buy a powerful, fully-featured laptop for $750 or less. The bad news is that these small devices are among the most popular targets for electronics thieves -- it's easy to pick up and quickly hide or walk away with a notebook sized computer, whether in an office or school, at a coffee shop, or at an airport. And both businesses and individuals carry around a lot of important files and data on their laptops - from personal music and photo collections to business plans and databases, not to mention personal information including logins and passwords that could be used to steal your identity. For many of us, this data is much more valuable than the actual replacement cost of the computer. OK, so the question is, how can you protect your laptop and prevent laptop theft? How can you recover your notebook computer if it is stolen? How can you delete or recover files from a stolen laptop? In this guide we will look into all those issues, as we find the best way to guard that precious laptop.

Preventing Laptop Theft

OK, let's start with the basics when it comes to protecting your notebook computer. Here are some laptop theft prevention tips:
  • Don't leave laptops in your car -- lock doors and hide out of sight if you must.. quick grabs from cars are one of the most common ways that laptops, PDAs, cellphones, and MP3 players are stolen
  • At airports, don't send your laptop through the x-ray machine until you are ready to walk through the metal detector, and don't go through the metal detector until your laptop is well inside the machine. Also, PICK UP your laptop as soon as it comes out of the x-ray machine -- you wouldn't believe the number of laptops lost or stolen from airports.
  • Consider engraving or marking your laptop with identifying information -- this makes it easy for honest people to return a lost laptop, and it makes it a lot harder for thieves to resell a stolen computer (up to 65-75% of tagged laptops are recovered).
  • Use a non-descript carrying bag for your laptop -- no reason to scream out "My laptop is in this fancy computer bag!". A soft laptop sleeve works just as well (though you'll need to find another place to carry accessories), as does a standard briefcase or backpack.
  • Don't leave your laptop unattended -- this means on the table in a conference room or at a meeting, in a classroom, at a coffee shop, at an airport, or in a hotel/motel room.
  • Use the Universal Security Slot (USS) on the side of your laptop to attach a security cable or alarm when leaving your computer at your desk or in your office -- if a thief can't just pick up your computer and walk quickly out the door, 9 times out of 10 they won't bother.


Laptop Theft Prevention Devices - Security Cables and Alarms

So once you get past the commonsense rules above, the next step is taking some physical precautions to protect your laptop. The first step is to mark your computer with an asset tag of some sort. ArmorTag.com offers tamper-resistant, sticky, metallic tags that attach to your laptop, with an ID code and a number to call for a reward if found (you enter your personal information on their website, so only they know how to contact you -- your personal info is not on your laptop or available to anyone who finds it). You can buy 3 ArmorTags for $25 (you can also put them on any other item you want to protect). YouGetItBack.com offers similar asset tag stickers - medium sized one for a laptop is just $10. You again record your info on their website (which is tied to the code on the sticker), put the sticker on your computer, and that's it. There is a listed toll-free phone number for finders to call, along with a mention of reward. They handle the pickup and delivery of the lost object back to you (protection is good for 3 years). The standard reward for both of these companies is just a $20-$25 gift pack for free service from these companies -- but you can also offer your own cash reward to sweeten the deal if you like. These tags work best for 2 situations -- when your laptop is lost and found by an honest person, or to deter theft in the first place by having an almost-impossible to remove permanent identifying marker on your machine.

Apart from indentification tags, the next step is using physical locks or alarms. The most common laptop locks takes advantage of the built-in security slots found in all laptop computers, called Universal Security Slots (USS). If you look at the side or back of your laptop, you will find a little slot with a lock icon next to it - it's only about 1/3 of an inch long, and doesn't look like much. You can buy cable that plug and lock into this slot, almost like a bike lock. You then wrap the other end of the cable around some unmovable object like a desk or table, and voila, your laptop is now connected to the table and no one can take it. Kensington makes a line of laptop security cables. The Kensington 64068F MicroSaver Notebook Lock and Security Cable (PC/Mac) sells for less than $35 and comes with a 6' kevlar/steel cable (it also connects to monitors, projectors, and many other electronic devices) and keylock to secure your laptop. It won't stop someone with a lock cutter, but is will discourage most opportunistic thieves. For a retractable security cable, check out this Kensington laptop solution. The Pcguardian Ezolution Classic-mk Custom Laptop Security Cabl Lock-mk is another cable option to proctect your laptop.

There are also a variety of alarms you can choose instead of cable lockdowns. There are proximity alarms and motion alarms, both of which will blast high pitch sounds if your laptop is picked up and moved out of an area. One such laptop alarm is the Belkin F5L013 USB Laptop Security Alarm, which sells for less than $25. Check out the entire line of laptop security products here. Also consider the Kensington 64196 MICROSAVER ALARMED LOCK -- it has a 6 foot cable that sounds an alarm if it is cut, and it is LOUD. The point being, if you plan on leaving your laptop unattended, lock it up with a cable or alarm.

Best Software Programs to Protect Your Notebook from Theft - Help Recovering a Stolen Laptop - Computer Tracking and Recovery Software

Apart from physically protecting your laptop from theft, there are also a variety of security software programs you can use to help recover a stolen or lost laptop. Most of them work in a similar manner -- when a stolen or lost machine is next turned on and connected to the Internet, your laptop will record and send information to a special server or via email, alerting you that the laptop is in use and capturing some basic information about its location. This won't keep your notebook from being stolen in the first place, but it will make it easier to track it down and hopefully recover it. ComputraceComplete (designed for corporate users), from Absolute.com, offers a number of advanced features, like allowing you to delete sensitive files remotely. The software runs invisibly once installed on your computer. If your computer is stolen, you contact them and they will begin tracking and recording the information sent to them by your laptop and work with authorities to recover the machine. They also make Computrace LoJack for home office users -- the Premium version is $59 per year, while the basic version is $39. They claim to recover 3 out of 4 stolen computers -- this is one claim we decided not to test ourselves! It works just like ComputraceComplete by installing a small, hidden application onto your laptop, which automatically connects via the internet with information about the location of your PC. If it is stolen, you alert them and they start tracking it. PCPhoneHome.com, by Brigadoon, works by automatically sending a hidden email to an address you specify each time your computer is connected to the Internet, with ISP and IP information to help figure out who and where your laptop is being used. It costs just $29 for lifetime use. If your laptop is stolen, you contact them with the information from the email and their Command and Tracking Center will start working on recovering it. LaptopCopSoftware.com goes a step further by giving you remote access to your laptop when it is connected to the internet -- you can retrieve and delete files (specific files, folders, or file types), watch and record what the user is doing (capture logins and passwords, instant messages, screen shots, etc.), geolocate in real-time where the laptop is by using Wi-Fi hotspots to determine location to within 60 feet. It costs $50 for a 1 year license, $99 for 3 years. zTrace.com is another player in this market, and their zTrace Gold is another highly regarded stealth software program to help in the recovery of a stolen or lost laptop.