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How to protect your smartphone, tablet, laptop and other tech kit

We look at the best ways to ensure your tech kit doesn’t get lost, stolen or damaged

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.

Anti-theft accessories

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.

Kensington locks

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.

Targus Defcon lock

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.

Safes

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.

AlarmsAlarm lock

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.

Trust proximity alarm

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.

Retainagaurd

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

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

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

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