From smartphones to laptops, and digital cameras to tablets and e-readers, many of us are investing in more portable kit than ever before. We carry our gadgets everywhere with us, and store all sorts of personal data to their internal memory, with little thought to their security. But their loss can be devastating.
As soon as you take any valuable gear outside the safe confines of your home or office, the chances of it being lost, stolen or damaged increase. Even more alarming is the potential loss of your data stored on the device. After all, gadgets can be replaced, but the same isn’t always true of your emails, documents, photos, video, music and more.
You can minimise these risks by taking some sensible precautions. Over the following pages, we’ll provide practical advice on how to protect your gear on the move.
First, we’ll look at the bewildering array of products aimed at preventing your mobile devices falling into the hands of thieves, and provide some guidance on the pros and cons of each. Then we’ll see how to ensure that your valuable data isn’t lost when the worst happens and you’re parted from your kit.
We’ll also look at the various types of cases that can protect portable gear from accidental damage. Finally, we’ll consider insurance and mention some common-sense precautions that you can take to help protect your devices.
There are no cast-iron guarantees, but if you follow our guidance and are prepared to make a modest financial investment in protecting your pride and joy, the risk of it becoming lost, damaged or stolen will dramatically decrease.
A bewildering range of so-called ‘anti-theft’ products is available to protect your portable devices. All serve one of two purposes; a few do both.
Some products can help to prevent your kit being stolen in the first place; others can increase the chances of it being returned to you if it falls into the wrong hands. It’s worth using both methods for maximum protection.
In the same way that the first line of defence for our homes is a lock and key, the same is true of our portable gear. Most laptops have a Kensington socket, a
slot named after a laptop security company that makes steel cables that lock into this socket and are secured around an immovable object, such as a desk, with a combination lock or padlock.
Several other companies, including Targus, also sell compatible security cables. Prices start at around £10.
Smaller devices such as tablets, e-readers and smartphones rarely have security sockets, but there are accessories that let you attach a lock. Kensington’s SecureBack range, for example, is available for iPad, Windows and Android tablets, and starts at around £30. Similar products can be found cheaper elsewhere, but few manufacturers offer such a large choice.
Another way to physically prevent someone making off with your kit is a Kensington-type socket that attaches to the equipment’s case using high-strength adhesive pads. This
is cheaper than a security case and can be used with just about any type of portable gear.
If you like the sound of this, go for a low-profile version, such as the SecurePad from Creation Security, which is available for around £10. Bear in mind, though, that this product is intended for use with the iPad; if you were to use it to secure a smartphone, a thief could simply remove the battery cover.
If you need to protect tech that’s left in the car, consider an Autosafe. These are lockable boxes that can be firmly anchored in the car boot or in a footwell. Prices start at £52.
Another means of stopping a thief getting away with your prized portable device is to protect it with an alarm. The £15 Lock Alarm Mini from Lock Alarms can be secured to both your mobile device and a fixed object using a thin steel cable.
The Lock Alarm Mini will work with anything that has a slot through which you can slip the cable, and it also comes with an adaptor for a Kensington socket. A 100dB siren sounds if the lock cable is cut or motion is detected.
An alternative is the proximity alarm, which sounds a siren if the equipment to which the alarm is attached exceeds a certain distance from a keyfob in your pocket. The £10 Mobile Laptop Alarm NB-3500p from Trust is one such alarm. There’s no way to securely attach it to your laptop, but it can easily be stored in your laptop case – an opportunist thief probably won’t stop long enough to check what’s inside the bag they’ve just lifted.
None of these alarms is particularly easy to use with very compact devices such as smartphones, so this is where the Bluetooth proximity alarm comes in. Typified by the Mi-Zone Tag, which is available for many types of tablet and smartphone, an app is installed on the device and a separate tag remains in contact via Bluetooth. If the protected device is separated from the tag an alarm sounds. The Mi-Zone Tag costs £39.
Marking your kit
If you’ve done your best to secure your kit and it still does a vanishing act, you can try to ensure that it’s safely returned. If it’s been stolen then your chances of getting back your kit are slim, but there is still hope. And if it’s simply been left on a bus or train, some kind-natured stranger may return it to you – provided they know who you are.
The most effective way of getting back your kit if it’s lost or stolen is to mark it indelibly. If it’s recovered by the police then they will know who to contact. Marking kits are prepared with your details and take the form of small labels that are attached using high-strength adhesive, or stencils that allow you to mark your kit in such a way that it etches the surface, thereby making removal impossible.
Some companies let you specify the text, such as your name and postcode, whereas others provide a unique serial number that is stored in database accessible by the police. This second method makes greater sense if you will one day sell or pass on your device, since the new owner can easily replace your details with their own.
Retainaguard provides marking products and database registration. You can order these from RM (rm.com), but prices vary – get in touch to find out how much it will cost to mark all your gear.
The company also provides a labelling system that incorporates an ultraviolet element. Even if the label is removed, the mark can still be read under UV light.
Forensic marking products are invisible and uniquely coded, with the police able to detect the mark with a UV lamp. Recovered equipment can be forensically analysed, thereby allowing the registered owner to be determined from a database.
SmartWater is the most common system of this type, and kits containing enough fluid to mark 10s of items start at £60 per year.
In deciding between visible and invisible marking, it’s important to recognise the pros and cons of each approach. The main benefit of visible marking is that it acts as a deterrent; the down side is that it detracts from the appearance of your kit. Invisible marking has no visual impact, but it doesn’t have the same deterrent effect. However, SmartWater is supplied with tamper-resistant labels, which can serve to warn a would-be thief that the equipment is marked.
An alternative is to use software. Norton Anti-Theft, which costs from £30, can protect up to three devices running Windows, OS X or Android. If a protected device is stolen, you can track it via its built-in GPS or from information on the Wi-Fi hotspots to which it connects.
Norton Anti-Theft also lets you remotely lock down your personal files, preventing the thief from accessing your data, and you can even use the device’s built-in camera to snap a photo of whoever’s using it at the time.
Next page: Data protection and backup
It’s annoying and inconvenient if your portable kit is lost, stolen or damaged, but the hardware itself can be replaced. Unfortunately, the same isn’t always true of the data stored on it. As well as following our advice on protecting your gear from theft and accidental damage, it’s wise to also protect your data.
First and foremost, this means backing up your data on a regular basis. As the primary method, we suggest that you regularly synchronise your portable devices with your home or office PC. This means you need only one backup solution, since the data from all your devices will be backed up in the same place as your PC’s data.
Backing up your central PC can be done locally, online or, in an ideal world, both.
We looked in some detail at how to do that in our Backup Superguide. In essence, though, you’ll either be backing up to local storage, such as a hard drive or optical disc, or to an online service, most of which are free up to a given amount of storage space.
Convenient as it might be to back up everything via a home or office PC, you might be away from home for a while. Waiting until you get home to do a backup puts your newer data at too great a risk.
For this reason, it’s worth investigating methods of backing up directly from your devices. A word of warning is appropriate, though. You’ll most commonly use this method to back up totally new files, such as photographs you’ve taken since you were last at home. However, if you edit documents that you also work on at home, and back up from home, you need to ensure that you back up only the most recent version.
Some backup methods can handle conflicting changes to a document (Dropbox saves an additional copy of the file, for example), but others will overwrite the file.
A laptop is easy enough to deal with, as you’ll use much the same methods to back up its data as you would with your home PC, and the same is true of most tablets – provided that you’re prepared to carry a USB external drive, and that the tablet has a USB port.
Other safeguards include online backup services, such as Dropbox, Carbonite or SugarSync, which are useful when you’re in range of a Wi-Fi hotspot. Apps are available for iOS and Android, and there are desktop versions for Windows and OS X. It’s usually possible to log in through the service’s web interface on other devices, too.
In addition to these PC-centric solutions, there are services aimed at Apple and Android devices. Apple’s iCloud provides manual and automatic backup for iPad and iPhone.
It’s free with up to 5GB of storage and can be used to back up photos, device settings, app data, messages and ringtones. You also get unlimited storage space for material purchased from the iTunes Store, App Store or iBookstore.
Also offering 5GB for free is Google Drive, which is compatible with Windows, OS X, Android and iOS.
Two types of device require specific mention. Digital cameras can’t directly connect to the internet, making it difficult to copy their files to a removable drive without a PC. Although their storage cards are usually removable, it’s likely that this will be inside your device when it’s lost or stolen.
Some backup devices are designed specifically for cameras, and could be a solution for serious photographers. These are standalone storage devices with memory card slots that allow you to make a copy of your photos. The 160GB Ex-Pro Photo Bank costs £110 from Amazon, for example.
Finally, we come to e-readers. If you own a Kindle, there’s no real need to back up your data as you can re-download any e-books you’ve previously bought from Amazon. For other e-readers, be sure to purchase your e-books from a website that allows you to re-download books, should you accidentally delete one, or your device is lost or stolen before you’ve had a chance to back it up.
Cases and bags
One of the most obvious ways toprotect your gear from accidental damage is to put it in a case or bag. Some of these accessories could even reduce the likelihood of theft.
While it’s tempting to carry your laptop in a fancy, branded case, a senior police officer told us that he always carried his in a scruffy supermarket carrier bag, since nobody would think it contained anything valuable.
If you hanker after something a bit more stylish, a rucksack is much more difficult for a thief to pull off your back than to snatch a conventional case from your hand. Laptop-specific rucksacks start at around £15. The V7 Professional Laptop Backpack from Box, for example, looks inconspicuous and can carry laptops with screens up to 17in.
In defence against accidental damage, the degree of protection you choose depends on the hostility of the environment in which you intend to use your gear, and how much you value your equipment.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you’re likely to trash unprotected gear only if you engage in extreme sports or work on a building site or similar.
Anyone can get caught in a heavy downpour, and something as simple as braking heavily in a car could result in kit on the back seat being thrown on to the floor. Beaches are particularly risky environments for delicate electronics, due to sand and salt water getting into tiny holes and damaging sensitive electronic equipment.
Some kit is designed to withstand these sorts of conditions. You can buy rugged phones, cameras, laptops and more, but there’s usually a premium to pay. When buying rugged gear, look for a drop-test figure and an IP-rating in the spec.
The drop-test figure is self-explanatory, but comparisons aren’t always easy to make. It’s not immediately obvious whether the ability to withstand a drop of 1m on to concrete means the device is tougher than if it could handle a 2m drop on to plywood. IP stands for ingress protection, and is a two digit number of which the first figure (0-6) relates to the ingress of solid objects or particles, such as sand and dust, while the second figure (0-8), which is the most important for general equipment, refers to protection from water. See Wikipedia for more.
If you can’t justify the cost of rugged gear, invest in a rugged case. A range of such cases, which is popular with outdoor enthusiasts and professionals who need to use gear in extreme environments, is the Pelicase (available from waterproof-cases.co.uk).
The range comprises cases that are made of hard plastic, are tough and waterproof, and have foam inserts to prevent the gear inside rattling around. These range in size from micro cases large enough for a phone or iPod (£18) to laptop cases (£128) and larger.
Pelicases might provide the ultimate in protection but, with the exception of some of the micro cases that have a headphone socket, they are generally used just for carrying your gear; the kit remains at risk when you take it out to use it.
In essence extremely tough plastic bags, Aquapacs provide a high level of waterproofing. In many cases, you can continue to use your device while it’s inside the enclosure – even if it has a touchscreen. Some have optically ‘pure’ windows, through which you can take a photo, but they don’t provide the same protection as a Pelicase against being dropped or driven over. Prices range from £16 for a smartphone enclosure to £45 for a tablet case.
Tech21 offers a range of tailormade cases from £20 for various portable devices. Made from a shock-absorbent polymer called D3O, they offer a tight fit and impact protection. While they’re not nearly as tough as Pelicases, and without the waterproofing of Aquapacs (although Tech21 has a Submariner range), these products are stylish and needn’t be removed prior to use.
Griffin, too, has a super-tough Survivor range of cases for iPod, iPhone and iPad. These start at £16 from Amazon.
Next page: Insurance and anti-theft tips
Backup can be thought of as an insurance policy for your data, but you should also ensure that you have adequate cover for your hardware. When your kit’s at home it’ll be covered by your home-insurance policy, but this doesn’t necessarily apply when you’re on the move. We spoke to the Association of British Insurers, which gave us some advice on policies.
There are two main choices, both with pros and cons. The first is to add extra cover to your household policy; the second is to take out a specific mobile devices policy.
Generally, you’ll have to pay an additional premium if you want loss, theft and damage cover for items taken out of the house. However, since this should cover everything you own, it may well be a good investment.
However, if you do have to make a claim, the excess will tend to be higher than it would be with a specific mobile devices policy, and it will probably affect your no-claims discount. This option also applies only to home owners and tenants.
Mobile devices insurance was originally aimed at phones, although these policies now tend to cover anything with a SIM; many also include laptops and e-readers. Theft and accidental damage are generally covered, and some policies also cover breakdown once the warranty has expired. Commonly, but not always, you’re also protected from having to pay the cost of calls made on your phone following theft or loss, something that a household policy probably won’t cover.
This is an area in which it’s difficult to provide definitive advice, since policies differ between companies. The number-one rule is to carefully read the policy before signing up. Make sure you know what equipment and types of loss are covered, what excess applies, and how a claim would affect next year’s renewal premium. Also, if you’re going to be using your gear abroad, ensure that you’re covered when overseas.
Tips on avoiding theft
Avoiding theft often comes down to common sense. Don’t advertise your valuable gear to thieves. If you have to leave kit in the car, hide it in the boot rather than on display. And leave your kit at home unless you really need it. Remember that laptops and tablets aren’t easy to hide and are easy to steal from a busy environment such as a pub.
Keep receipts of your purchases and make a record of the serial numbers of each of your devices. Not only are receipts important if you need to make a claim under the warranty, but some insurance companies also ask for them as proof that you owned the item.
If your phone is stolen and you are a pay-monthly customer, report the theft to the service provider as soon as possible. It will ensure that no-one else is able to run up your phone bill. Failure to do this could result in you being charged for calls you didn’t make, and the bill could be more expensive than replacing the phone.
If you discover a theft, report it to the police. The chances of it being found and returned might be slim but, unless you report it (or your kit is marked, this likelihood is zero. Your insurance company will also require a crime-reference number when you make a claim for theft.
Not only is data valuable to you, it’s also valuable to a thief who may use it to your detriment. In addition to backing up your data so you can restore it following a theft or loss, sensitive data should be encrypted.
This can be done simply using Cryptainer on a laptop.
For smartphones and tablets, use a passcode to prevent unauthorised access and remember that its memory card is removable.