Tools & Techniques For When You Must Leave Your Laptop Alone In Public

Laptop in public 2 edit Resized   Tools & Techniques For When You Must Leave Your Laptop Alone In PublicIdeally we would never leave our laptops from our sight, especially in public. And there are definitely areas like airports and public transit where you should never consider it an option. But since becoming a tech writer, I’ve found that public areas, specifically coffee shops, are great for working. And because I’m in coffee shops 400% (yes, I did the math…) more than I used to be, I’ve noticed the need to occasionally leave my spot to go somewhere, whether it’s the restroom, the counter for a refill or snack, or even running out to the car.

Personally, it’s a bit more difficult for me as I often lug a lot of stuff with me. I may travel lighter with only a cooling pad. But other times, I bring my wireless keyboard and mouse, headphones, external hard drive, etc. Either way, it often seems impractical to put everything away and take it with me just to leave my spot for 5 minutes. Plus, without something marking your spot, you risk losing it – which is a big deal when power outlets are as valuable as the free Wi-Fi.

Coffee Shop Office   Tools & Techniques For When You Must Leave Your Laptop Alone In Public

This article will cover several precautions (not guarantees) to take to help you feel safer about when you’re away from your laptop. But these don’t just have to apply to when you’re in a public place. How about a dorm room, work cubicle or some other “mostly safe” place? These all can keep your gear safe there too.

Invest In A Laptop Security Cable

The word “invest” makes this sound like a big expense, but don’t let that deter you. You can pick a great one up for around $30 on Amazon. Of course there are other models which are on either side of that price range. The are a couple of options to look at when considering a security cable – key or combination (pictured below).

Laptop combination lock1   Tools & Techniques For When You Must Leave Your Laptop Alone In Public

One isn’t necessarily better than the other – it mostly comes down to preference. However, after reading one particular review on a security cable with the combination option, I became a bit more leery of combination locks due to the risk of accidentally resetting the combination and having to cut the lock off.

I read in the instructions about the risk of accidentally resetting the combination, and the manufacturer cautioned that there was no remedy for this. I didn’t worry, cause I thought, “Only a dummy would do that, and I’m no dummy.” Well guess what? Like some other posters, I accidentally reset my combination while normally applying the lock, and now I have to cut it off my computer.

A comment on this review even mentioned this happening to a Kensington lock with the combination function, which is ironic because they are the company behind this function on laptops, external hard drives, projectors and other similar technology.

So where is this port and what does it look like? It’s a small slot on either which will likely be on the side or back of your laptop, aptly called the K-slot, and can be either vertically or horizontally – depending the the computer.

K slot   Tools & Techniques For When You Must Leave Your Laptop Alone In Public

If you’re looking for it and can’t find something that looks like the image above, do you have an ultrabook? However, some ultrabooks, such as the MacBook Air, don’t have this. If you’re in this boat, a lock like the MicroSaver K64994AM by Kensington (pictured below) is a good solution. It fits into the regular K-slot, but also comes with an adaptor for those without a K-slot.

Kensington MicroSaver for Ultrabooks1   Tools & Techniques For When You Must Leave Your Laptop Alone In Public

Lastly, as you should always do when shopping online, check out the reviews before buying – they can give you a pretty good picture on the quality of the product and the company’s customer service – which is just as important. It’s also good to keep in mind that not all brands are made equal. Am I saying that Kensington is the only brand you should go with? No, but they are reputable, have excellent policies and will stand behind their products.

Should you decide use another company that makes a “Kensington compatible” product, you risk getting a cheaper product and service. A perfect example of this, despite the majority of decent user reviews, was the review mentioned at the beginning of this section.

Keeping all of that in mind, here are the best laptop security cables on Amazon to get you started.

Keep Things Hidden, But Also Connected

Obviously, don’t leave a wireless mouse just sitting at the edge of a table – make as much of it inconspicuous as possible. In addition to that, leaving as much connected to your laptop as you can will actually be a deterrent in itself, especially when combined with a security cable. People are looking for the quick “snatch-n-grab” not the cumbersome “unhook-this-unplug-that-oops-a-cord-got-caught-and-knocked-over-a-chair.”

Lock Your Screen

laptop lock screen1   Tools & Techniques For When You Must Leave Your Laptop Alone In Public

This is a pretty basic, but perhaps you didn’t you can lock your account again after the initial login into your computer. I recommend just doing this through keyboard shortcuts.

Screen locking in Windows

Windows Start Menu Lock   Tools & Techniques For When You Must Leave Your Laptop Alone In Public

Of course, you can go to the Start menu and lock the screen that way. But what’s faster is pressing [Start/Windows + L].

If you want to try an alternative to the default Windows Lock Screen, the transparent desktop lock, ClearLock, might be a good option.

Screen Locking In Mac

The keyboard shortcut [Control + Shift + Eject] will turn the display off, but an additional step must be taken in order to enable the screen to be locked whenever the display is turned off. To do this open the Software Preferences, click Security and check Require Password.

In addition, we recommend the program QuickLock, covered by Justin, which allows allows you to lock your Mac quickly. In the end of that article Justin also covers how to lock your Mac right from the taskbar with Keychain access in Utilities.

Screen Locking In Linux

To quickly lock your Linux machine, use the keyboard shortcut [Ctrl + Alt + L].

Create A Secure Password

Password1   Tools & Techniques For When You Must Leave Your Laptop Alone In Public

The lock screen is only as good as the password you have. Tina has written an excellent article to create a good password that you won’t forget and I strongly recommend following her guidelines. Here are some things to do when making a password:

  • Don’t use any real word.
  • Combine upper and lower case letters with numbers and special characters.
  • Use the first letter of every word in a phrase that means something to you.
  • Subtract letters with numbers where applicable (e.g. “1” instead of “i”).

These are just a few of the tips, but they certainly don’t fill the place of Tina’s article, so read that for more detail in creating awesome passwords.

Get To Know The Employees At The Venue

One of the benefits of becoming a regular at a coffee shop, library or any public place is that you can build relationships with the people who work there. They appreciate your business and want to do what they can to help you. And as long as they aren’t super busy, they’ll probably notice you get up and leave, or you can even just ask them to keep an eye on your stuff while you step away for a couple minutes. Either of these are likely enough if you have a good relationship and are sitting reasonably close to where they’re working.

Some Other Related Tips

In addition to building a relationship with the employees and even the owner(s). There are a couple of other things you can do:

  • Pick a spot in a relatively open area with people around, but not high traffic.
  • Ask someone you think is responsible after looking at them for five seconds to watch your stuff.

The idea with sitting in an open area is that people will notice you and also notice that someone who isn’t you is attempting to take your stuff. If you follow the other guidelines, such as putting a cable in place, they’re going to make a scene. Whereas if you were in some back corner where no one else was and you left your stuff, the thief wouldn’t be as easily deterred, sometimes even with a secure cable if given enough time.

When deciding whether or not to ask someone, think about where you’re at, who the person is and where you live. Here in the Midwest (United States), people are generally pretty nice, even in the big cities. I’ve never been to the coasts, so I don’t know how people in general are there. Obviously there are nice people all over this world, so you just have to find someone who is willing to watch your gear for a few minutes.

Don’t Use Explicit Storage – Disguise Your Laptop

Nothing says “Laptop!” like a laptop sleeve… and maybe even a messenger bag. Backpacks are a bit more bulky and thus more obvious if one is being taken. Don’t get me wrong, laptop-sized sleeves and cases are great – I use one, but when leaving it in places like your car or beside a table, try to have them less conspicuous in placement and perhaps in another less-obvious bag.

Also, there are creative ways to decorate your laptop and make it stand out. What? Aaron, you just said to make your laptop less obvious… Yes – the case. But if you’re leaving it out on a table, plugged in, perhaps it standing out is a better option. Someone who walks by and notices it pop out because it’s different is likely also going to notice someone, not you, having the same one. You can decorate it with stickers of interest and choice, custom back plates from your laptop’s manufacture, or skins and decals, which you can get on Amazon or other places online.

shutterstock 56752828   Tools & Techniques For When You Must Leave Your Laptop Alone In Public

Use Applications Which Aid In Preventing Theft

Prey   Tools & Techniques For When You Must Leave Your Laptop Alone In Public

From apps that can help you track down the perpetrator who took your laptop to programs that turn your webcam in to a motion detector, there are tools at your disposal. One of the coolest services is Prey, which Justin wrote about on MakeUseOf.

Prey offers some really unique features including:

  • Geolocation.
  • 30-second alarm.
  • Alert message.
  • Lock screen.
  • Screenshot.
  • Webcam image.

Prey Message resize   Tools & Techniques For When You Must Leave Your Laptop Alone In Public

In addition, you can use programs like iSpy or other motion detection software to enable you to see who took your laptop.

How do you get this video though if it was on your computer, which is now gone? When setting up the motion detection software, which sometimes is even a feature in various versions of the default webcam software, locate where those videos will be saved. Then use a program like SugarSync to automatically sync those files to the cloud any time a new file is detected. If you use another service other than SugarSync that doesn’t have the capability of syncing any folder on your computer (e.g. Dropbox, Google Drive), use the program Duplicati.

There is all kinds of information on this topic on MakeUseOf. Here’s some more helpful links:

Create An Inventory Of All Your Accessories

pencil and checklist inventory1   Tools & Techniques For When You Must Leave Your Laptop Alone In Public

If you need to leave your laptop briefly, it’s probably because it’s not just as simple as picking it up and taking it with you. You might have a hard drive, wireless mouse, cooling pad, and whatever else plugged into it. So it’s not a bad idea to have an inventory of everything you have and check it over before you leave and when you come back. Services like Evernote, a text document in Dropbox or a doc in Google Drive work great for this.

Don’t Take The Risk – Insure It

notebook lifesaver1   Tools & Techniques For When You Must Leave Your Laptop Alone In Public

Contrary to popular belief, laptop insurance is probably one of the smartest things you can do. However, I don’t recommend going with the big box store or manufacture warranties – those are a rip off. There are two companies that I personally recommend – Safeware and SquareTrade. I believe these are only available in the U.S., so if you live elsewhere, check around the Internet for reputable and affordable insurance companies. Another company that we’ve slightly covered on MakeUseOf in the article Should You Consider Buying Insurance For All Your Gadgets? is ProtectYourBubble, which I haven’t had any personal experience with.

I have worked with Safeware and they’re good. SquareTrade, however, has some of the best prices without a drop in value. These prices are even better if purchased through Amazon. Some feel that it’s a waste of money and that you might as well put the money towards a new one. But I differ with that. $150 is better than spending $700, no? If an accident happens and you don’t have accidental coverage, you’re out of luck.

Conclusion

Can these guarantee to protect your laptop from theft? No. But when you put several of these together, your chances of being a victim of theft decrease tremendously (no scientific proof, just logical assumption).

Do you ever leave your laptop in public? If so, what strategies do you use to prevent theft? Do you use something of your own that wasn’t covered here?

Image Credits: Kensington Ultrabook Lock via Amazon, Combination Laptop Lock via Shutterstock, Laptop Screen Lock via Shutterstock, Professional Laptop Sticker Skin via Shutterstock, Notebook Lifesaver via Shutterstock, Pencil Checklist via Shutterstock, Password via Shutterstock

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If you have any questions related to what's mentioned in the article or need help with any computer issue, ask it on MakeUseOf Answers—We and our community will be more than happy to help.

32 Comments -

Yudono R.A.

great tips thank for sharing, now i can at least reduce the possibility of my laptops getting stolen in public place :)

Lisa Santika Onggrid

Keep your eyes open though. Your laptop can also be easily stolen in non-public space.

Yudono R.A.

thanks for the thought :)

dragonmouth

A pair of bolt cutters can take care of most security cables.

Unless a BIOS password is used, any other password can be defeated by replacing the HD.

Any security program (Prey, iSpy) that has to be installed on the HD can be defeated by replacing the HD.

A Windows hard drive can be read and/or reformatted by using a Linux or BSD.

The best defence against theft in a public place is paranoia.

Lisa Santika Onggrid

For the boltcutters, it’d take a dedicated thief with preparations. This article merely describes prevention from thieves-by-chance, who will likely snag your laptop away if you make it easy. Of course, the steps aren’t enough to secure you from real thief, so paranoia is good to have.

dragonmouth

While living in New York City for a couple of decades, I became infected with a disease called “New York Paranoia”. The symptoms are that you never leave any door unlock if you can lock it, you never leave any of your belongings unattended, you always keep a hand on your wallet or purse, you keep an eye on everybody.

I don’t know how it is where you live but in New York City thieves are prepared for most eventualities and that means bolt cutters among other tools. Snatch and grab punks are analogous to “script kiddies” and don’t last long. They are either caught easily, or the more accomplished criminals “persuade” them to quit.

If one is prepared for a “real” thief, then one need not worry about “thieves-by-chance”.

Aaron Couch

Right. There are always ways to do those things, but these precautions are simply to deter that from happening.

Remember… public, meaning people are around. Who’s going to walk into a coffee shop with a pair of bolt cutters? I’m not talking about leaving your laptop on a park bench for hours here.

Greg

Oh come on! You guys know I carry around bolt cutters EVERYWHERE just for laptops!

Kirby

Maybe the thief has been stalking you for some time and decided to one day to bring those cutters.

dragonmouth

“public, meaning people are around.”
Are you so naive to think that a member of the public is going to be willing to put their ass on the line for you with a thief??? Maybe in Podunk, Nebraska, population 254, where everybody knows everybody. In a bigger city, for the most part, people “do not see” crime. Thieves routinely cut safety chains/cables and steal bicycles from the busiest streets with no one being the wiser. Besides, by the time any member of the “public” realizes what is going on, the thief and your laptop will be looong gone.

“Who’s going to walk into a coffee shop with a pair of bolt cutters?”
Any well dressed thief worth his salt. Any thief that targets laptops. Do you actually think that any of the coffee shop clientele is watching out for YOUR laptop? If any are watching, they are probably thinking of absconding with it themselves. For your sake, please wake up and smell the coffee. It’s a cold, cruel world out there.

Aaron Couch

Alright then. Sounds like you’ve got your mind set on those bolt cutters.

To be honest, in the scenario you’ve described it wouldn’t matter whether I left my laptop or not because I could be hit in the face with a pair of bolt cutters too! I mean, why even go out into a public place? It’d be safer just to stay locked up in my safe house all day.

dragonmouth

“It’d be safer just to stay locked up in my safe house all day.”
Now you’re being ridiculous. /grin/
One can look at your recommendations and assume the same Chicken Little attitude of not ever venturing out of the house.

dragonmouth

Also, nothing screams “LAPTOP” louder than a coffee table book-sized lump festooned with stickers or a garish skin.

Motion activated cameras are great if someone conveniently walks in front of them. If they snap the laptop lid from behind, no picture.

Using DropBox to store perpetrator pictures is a good idea as is a motion-activated siren.

Richard Steven Hack

It may not save your laptop from being stolen, but what it can do is prevent your data from being used against you. I’m talking about whole disk encryption.

Just don’t forget the complex passphrase you should use to decrypt it.

Any other form of protection you use can be defeated once someone has unlimited access to the machine. Logon passwords are worthless – there are several bootable CDs that can be used to completely bypass them. Any other software that allegedly “locks” the machine can be bypassed one way or another.

The rule is: If a hacker has physical access to your machine, it’s not your machine any more.

Even encryption is not absolutely secure. It’s possible to extract the keys from memory although it’s very difficult.

To prevent theft, find some way to attach a movement alarm like they provide for hotel room doors that screams if the laptop is moved. Of course, it someone bumps the table out the way out the door, you probably won’t be allowed back. :-)

Aaron Couch

That’s a great suggestion Richard. I wonder if there’s software for that.. hmmm :P

Thanks for the comment and for reading!

Mark Alsisto

great tips! I think lock would be sufficient. Just lock it and boom! no one is gonna steal it, no need to worry about window locking, password, disguised, get to know employees, insure.

btw, im using prey for added security. :)

Catherine McCrum

Interesting and useful article. Some very good comments have been made so far with varying tips and opinions.

Also, consider your tablet/IPAD and such — can some of these procedures keep them from being stolen (either data or physically)?

Aaron Couch

Catherine,

Tablets are much easier to take with you places, so there’s really no need to ever have to leave them to get up and go somewhere. You can install Prey on tablets as well.

Peter Sacgliani

Dudes/ettes: I consider my notebook an additional appendage of my body, and as such, having not yet (knock on wood) lost any of those, I take it with me everywhere I go, planning accordingly. I trust no one, especially someone I might have just “met” and am not naive enough to think they wouldn’t be the ones to walk off with my stuff.

Go ahead, call me cycnical, but having be robbed at gun point once, threated in the past, and been burglarized in my car 3 times in my life, call me paranoid. It’s a cruel world out there, and to take the advice of some kid who’s obviously still a wet-behind-ears, idealist at best, is manifested “Polyanna”. Sure some of the stuff he suggested is at least one grade abovedumb NOT TO DO, but no substitute for not leaving yourself vulnerable in any possible way in the first place. Plan Ahead, folks. It all boils down to GASF (Give-a-shit-ffactor) — if you care enuff, take it with it, or don’t break it out to use in public in the first place.

Gaurav Rajak

great article,thanks.:)

Tristan

“Cubicle”, not “cubical”.

Lisa Santika Onggrid

Syncing your Webcam folder to your cloud service is genius. I didn’t think of that.

Anonymous

ive used a lot of these (my wife works at a truck stop, and we’re in a position where i wind up sitting there for a few hours at a time waiting for her shift to finish, and need to leave my laptop), but the one that works really well in making me feel safe about leaving it is a BIOS password (and some of the security programs). very good article, though!

Steve S

More important than how good the cables are is how good the K-hole is. Most of the holes are in soft plastic. And even with metal cases, I haven’t seen a computer yet where it would not be at all difficult to take a firm grip on the cable lock and snap it right out of the hole. The amount of damage left would not be at all difficult for the new owner of the computer to live with.

LaurelRaven

I can’t speak for all laptops, but every one I’ve dealt with, while the case may be plastic, the k-hole has always been metal reinforced, and wouldn’t be at all easy to pull out. Again, this isn’t to prevent any theft from possibly happening; it’s to prevent the common, quick theft of convenience. Just like locking your door when you leave.

Aaron Couch

Yep! Exactly Laurel. Somehow I missed that comment, but you’re exactly right.

MOST of the time people are looking for a quick snag. MOST of the time when you need to lock your laptop, you’re in a public place. And MOST of the time MOST of the people are honest. If someone sees a thief TRYING to steal by cutting a cord, they’re probably going to stop them… to say the least.

Thanks for your comment Laurel!

Kirby

Thanks for the article. Window + L is new to me. I always ask someone I know and trust to look out for my stuff when I need to go somewhere for a while. My brother uses those security cables though.

Maddy Poudel

Really relevant topic which i was been searching to read this type of post. Thanks buddy

Guy McDowell

This was a very thorough article. All of these ideas are valid and, if used in combination, would dramatically reduce the risk of the laptop being stolen.

The cable requires a cable cutter to cut it quickly enough to walk off with it. Bolt cutters just mangle aircraft style cable.

Aaron Couch

Thanks Guy! That was the idea — even just two combinations of these techniques would in most cases be enough.

Catherine O

Just to add to the idea of insuring your electronics, most renter’s insurance includes coverage for items stolen even when they are not in your home. I personally use Geico becaus eI linked it with my auto policy for the added discount. A few additional notes when have items insured is to ask for replacement cost rather than actual cash value. Replacement cost means that they will pay for a new (insert item name here) versus Actual cash value which means you get the depreciated cash value for the item. For instance I have a mac book pro which cost about $1300 but because I’ve had it for six months is probably worth about $700-800. If my computer is stolen or lost in a fire or many other types of possible events. I will get $1300 or whatever a mac book pro costs so that I can get a new one, but if I had actual cost, I might have to look for a cheaper option. replacement cost usually only cost 2 or 3 more dollars a month and renter’s insurance is generally inexpensive at $15-$20 a month. I also as for the lowest possible deductible. I have $100 deductible (which is the amount I have to pay of the cost of replacing anything). All in all it is totally worth the peace of mind. Another note is make sure everyone who’s things you want covered is listed on the policy because my roommate’s stuff is not covered unless I put her on the policy or she gets her own. Finally for homeowner’s and parent’s that are homeowners, there are riders available for similar protection on homeowners and if you have a child at school (Dorm-life) they may be covered under your insurance, if not get a renters policy!

Aaron C

Very good advice! Thank you so much for reading and sharing your insight, Catherine!