Recover a Stolen Laptop With Anti-Theft Software

Free and inexpensive ways to deal laptop theft

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Laptop theft is fairly common, and according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), 97 percent of stolen computers are never recovered. One way to tip the odds in your favor is to install an application to help you locate your missing device.

Overview of Laptop Tracking and Recovery Software

Laptop anti-theft applications are designed to trace your laptop's location so that local law enforcement can go retrieve it; police are particularly motivated to do so because these substantial leads help them capture serial criminals. For laptop tracking to work, you have to install or enable the application before the laptop gets stolen. The software runs in the background, unbeknownst to the thief. The laptop must connect to the Internet (i.e., the thief has to go online) before the software can update the computer's location.

Although some tracking and recovery applications can be circumvented if the hard drive is reformatted, thieves steal laptops not for the hardware, but for the data that resides on them — so thieves are less likely to reformat the computer for resale than to try to get the valuable information off of it first. Other laptop recovery applications are embedded in the computer's BIOS (firmware), which makes them difficult, if not impossible, for a thief to remove.

Laptop Tracking and Recovery Applications

One popular laptop retrieval solution is Absolute Software's Computrace LoJack for Laptops, which not only tracks your laptop via GPS/Wi-Fi but also allows you to remotely delete your data from the hard drive if your computer goes missing.

Another theft recovery application is GadgetTrack, which offers Wi-Fi positioning, location notification from a web control panel, and webcam support to snap a photo of the thief.

For Apple users, Oribicule's Undercover offers protection for Macbooks, iPads, and iPhones using the built-in iSight camera and the ability to capture screenshots from the stolen Mac. Only the individual owner has the password that can initiate laptop/device monitoring — a reassuring additional privacy measure.

These and other location-based tracking services continuously announce your laptop's whereabouts (and therefore, yours, if you have it with you) to a central server, so you may be concerned about privacy implications. Here's where Prey comes in: It's a free, open-source application that works globally on most operating systems. Because Prey is open source, and location tracking is triggered by the user only when needed, there may be fewer privacy concerns than with other solutions. As with other tracking software, Prey provides location reports, sits silently in the background gathering information such as network/Wi-Fi details, and uses the laptop's webcam to photograph the thief.

Use Remote Access Software to Catch a Thief

If your laptop is stolen before you install one of the recovery applications above, all may not be lost if you use remote access software such as Back to My Mac, which one tech-savvy Mac owner used to catch her laptop thief, or another remote desktop control program such as pcAnywhere, GoToMyPc, LogmeIn, or SharedView. The idea is to connect remotely to your stolen computer and use the webcam or other clues (such as information in open applications or the IP address found in the network settings) to find out where and who the thief is. Most business laptop thefts are inside jobs.

Part of a Cohesive Security System

Tracking and recovery software increases your chances of getting your laptop back if it gets stolen or lost, but it should be used in tandem with other important security measures. These applications, for example, don't actually prevent theft the way using cable locks and alarms can deter physical theft, and they don't secure the data on the device or prevent sensitive information from being accessed. For that, you need to encrypt your data with programs such as TrueCrypt. Also, you should follow best-practice security policies, such as not storing sensitive information on your portable device unless absolutely necessary.