Stop! Laptop Thief!

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Think for a minute like a white-collar kleptomaniac. What's worth more than you're ever likely to lift from a wallet, owned by an increasing number of your co-workers and often left sitting on their desks at lunchtime? That's right: a laptop computer. Laptops are getting smaller, lighter and easier to conceal. Many electronics stores will buy them for their used and refurbished sections. Heck, even the irs has lost 2,332 laptops in the past three years. Who is going to miss one more?

Now think like a laptop owner. Your precious machine, filled with irreplaceable data, is less safe than ever. In 2001 there were 591,000 laptops reported stolen — up 53% from the previous year (desktop computer thefts, by contrast, are falling). Luckily, there are precautions you can take, from better locks to laptop insurance. And if the unthinkable happens, there are even ways to track your lost laptop on the Internet.

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Let's start with insurance. Safeware (at offers one of the most popular policies: premiums are upwards of $200 a year, and they pay full value for lost hardware. (But not, unfortunately, for lost documents.) Alternatively, you could search for your serial number on the Stolen Computer Registry for no charge. But according to the fbi, you would have only a 5% chance of seeing your laptop again.

Unless you have installed tracking software, that is. This is a very cool idea, taking advantage of the fact that your thief will probably try to go online. As soon as he does, hidden software will broadcast his IP address, which the police can use to locate him in minutes.

I tried Stealth Signal, a service that costs $45 a year and works with both Macs and PCs. There is also ZTrace; $49 a year) for the PC only; Mac OS X users can try LapCop for $15. Once Stealth Signal was installed on my laptop, I reported it "stolen." Early the next morning I was astonished to receive an e-mail from Stealth Signal, which had tracked the laptop to my home address and phone, even though my number is blocked. The company says it has a 63% recovery rate, a figure that climbs to 95% if the laptop broadcasts a signal. One flaw: reformatting the hard drive can also erase the tracking software.

Obviously, it's preferable not to lose your laptop in the first place. If you're a frequent flyer, consider the TrackIT, a $59.99 keychain alarm that sounds if you and your machine are separated by more than 40 ft. (Don't laugh: post-9/11, there are more and more reports of frazzled business travelers leaving their laptops at the X-ray machine.) And since more than 40% of laptop thefts happen at work, it's worth locking yours down during your lunch break. Try the Notebook Guardian from PC Guardian ($59.99). There are two models; be sure to get the one with the extra-thick cable. Why give the corporate kleptomaniac any more temptation?

Questions? Comments? Write to Chris at