How To Prepare Your Laptop For A Case Of Theft

SecureLaptop03   How To Prepare Your Laptop For A Case Of TheftLaptops offer great freedom. You can get some work done while traveling, check emails and Skype with friends from the Café, and take digital notes while attending a conference. But all it takes is a moment of inattention, and someone else can take advantage of your laptop’s portability.

The great risk that comes with all portable devices is theft. Not only do you risk losing an expensive piece of hardware, a stolen laptop also contains private and potentially confidential data, for example photos, personal data, work emails, and passwords. In this article I have summarized ways how you can protect your laptop from getting stolen or how to prepare it for a case of theft.

Use Locks for Laptop Theft Protection

The first line of defense to prevent unsolicited access to your data is a lock. You are probably reminded of the Kensington Security Slot and Lock and that is indeed something I recommend you to use. However, there are several other ways to lock your laptop, for example using a USB flash drive and software. These locks can trigger an alarm when someone tries to break them, for example by removing the flash drive or by entering a wrong password.

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We have covered several such tools in depth. I recommend consulting the following articles:

The setup procedure for Predator, another tool you can use to lock your PC, is described in The Office Worker’s Guide to a USB Thumb Drive.

Password Protect All User Accounts

The second line of defense are passwords. Whether you’re running Windows, Linux, or OS X, create a password for your user account. Also make sure there are no hidden accounts that remain unprotected, for example the Administrator account on Windows. The following article explains which passwords you need and it will refer you to further material on how to create safe passwords: 3 Default Passwords You Must Change & Why

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I realize it is very convenient to store passwords on your laptop and enable the auto login for desktop clients and online accounts. However, I recommend not to store passwords for any accounts that hold sensitive or confidential information, such as bank or email accounts. I also recommend you to use a password-protected password manager to help you mange safe passwords. We have covered the following on MakeUseOf:

Encrypt Sensitive Data

User account passwords are easy to crack. In fact, it’s not even necessary to crack them. Someone who has physical access to your laptop can just remove the hard drive and read it externally from another computer. Any data stored on your hard drive is easily accessible, regardless of how strong your user password is. Hence, your best bet is to encrypt data stored on your laptop.

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For Windows users I recommend TrueCrypt, a free, open source, and easy to use disk encryption software. Also have a look at the following tools:

Backup Your Data

Yes, I keep telling you this and it’s a mantra worthwhile. Whether or not your laptop gets stolen or your hard drive breaks, it will give you peace of mind. And if the worst happens, it will save you a lot of trouble.

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To learn more about backing up your Windows 7 data, I recommend reading the PDF guide Stuff Happens: The Backup & Restore Guide.

Install Applications to Track Down Your Laptop

Despite all protection in form of locks, passwords, encryption, and backed up data, your laptop can get stolen. Even if all you are losing is a piece of hardware, wouldn’t it be great if you could track it down and get it back? To make this possible, you need to prepare your laptop beforehand by installing tools to access the device once the thief uses it to go online.

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The following articles will walk you through the process for the respective applications:

And here are two more tools listed in our Directory:

Customize Your Laptop Data and Record Information

Another way of protecting your laptop from accidental removal or theft, is to customize it. Add stickers to the backside of the screen, engrave your laptop, or get a custom paint job. This will make it unique enough to avoid an accidental mix-up and it might also make it difficult to sell and thus less likely to be stolen.

In addition, take photos of your laptop, record any identifiable features, including damage, and note down the serial number. In case your laptop does get stolen, this information can be very valuable in retrieving it.

In a follow-up article due to be published tomorrow, I will share what you can do in case your laptop does get stolen.

Have you ever had a laptop stolen and did you use any of the tracking apps recommended above? Was the police of any help?

Image Credits: bodhihillillustration, Sven Hoppe, Vladru, mmaxer, Matthias Pahl, igorlale

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11 Comments -

0 votes

Matt C

I’d disagree slightly with the above. If you lock down all accounts, then the person is likely to just wipe the laptop, rendering anything like Prey completely useless. Instead, lock your main accounts, and leave one account open but with limited access, so that the person can use the laptop. This will mean it generates reports for Prey, and you can track it down.

0 votes

Tina

That’s definitely a point I should not have missed. Thanks for catching that, Matt!

Yes, if you do install software like Prey, be sure there is a guest account or another limited account that let’s the intruder use the laptop easily.

0 votes

Shawnr

It depends on who steals it. If I have physical access to a PC, there is nothing that will keep me from any data or out of any account. Laptop tracking is your best bet. I wonder if police will respond to data from locating software?

0 votes

Dan

Unless that is PC is protected by intelligent people like me who use whole disk encryption with Truecrypt (using a 16+ character password). ;-)

0 votes

Alien

Well, all I can say is: as long a the thief knows how to handle wireless devices, chances are you will most likely never be able to track it down.

0 votes

Tina

Unfortunately, that’s true. But unless you give it a try, you will never know. Better not have your stuff stolen in the first place. :)

0 votes

De1138

Most people stealing laptops are usually oportunistic thiefs. they are not planned like industry organised theft. so I doubt that they would have had much technical experience. The tracking software with an open account is definately your best option. 2nd I always partion the harddrive and encrypt the partition used to store my private personal files. (truecrypt, thumbs up). As long as the police and the internet provider work together you MIGHT have a chance of recovery.

0 votes

De1138

Oh as an after thought I forgot to mention “Do not use a BIOS password” otherwise the person the theif takes it to will definately have technical know-how and enough brains to wipe the hard drive.

0 votes

Tina

Good thinking!

0 votes

Jerry P

Unless things have changed in the last few years when I worked on a lot of laptops (where the hard drive password was required):

BIOS passwords can be circumvented.  Instead use the hard drive password.  Generally speaking, no one is going to break it, as the effort required would go way beyond the resale value of the entire laptop.  Now, if the thief knew there was some *very* valuable data that would stay valuable for a long time, they might try, but that’s not a typical theft. 

The location of the hard drive password is on the drive platter preventing anyone without a clean room from doing anything other than trying to brute force the password. And that would take a long, long time.   

0 votes

Jerry P

This would keep you from any shot at recovery from software, but would certainly protect your data.