Thousands of laptops are lost or stolen each year. People leave them in taxis, trains, hotels and coffee shops, and they’re a prime target by thieves as well. Put your laptop bag down for a minute and a thief might snatch it when you aren’t looking, and a laptop left on your car seat is a huge temptation for opportunistic thieves.
Of course, you stand to lose more than just the hardware. The thief or finder could access personal files and information and even steal your identity.
There is little chance of recovering a lost or stolen laptop unless you take precautions. It’s good practice to make a record of any serial numbers printed on the case that can help identify it. This information can be passed on to the police, lost and found departments at train stations, or wherever you last remember having it. Having this extra information should speed up your laptop’s return if it turns up.
You should also mark it. UV pens cost very little and if the police recover a laptop they check it with a UV lamp when trying to locate the owner. An alternative is etching or sticky labels that when attached to a computer or other device, are nearly impossible to remove. A thief will find it hard to sell on a laptop that has a tough label super-glued to the case proclaiming your ownership. Companies such as Selectamark specialise in this sort of thing.
Another step to take is to encrypt your files. Encryption software can be used to hide important files or lock your entire hard drive. TrueCrypt is free and open source, and there are many commercial encryption tools too.
Laptop tracking software
Laptop tracking software, however, is one method you can use to actively try and find out where your missing laptop has got to. It’s the equivalent of Apple’s Find My iPhone, and it’s well worth investing in some software if you regularly travel with your laptop.
Also known as laptop recovery software, it reports the laptop's location every day or even every few minutes, as long as it’s connected to the internet. It may take screen shots of the desktop and photos of the user with the laptop's webcam. This information can be used by the police to recover your computer.
Tracking software can also remotely lock a laptop to stop someone using it, display messages on the screen, and even remotely erase the disk to prevent personal information being accessed by the thief.
Let's take a look at these services in more detail.
LoJack For Laptops
Manufacturer: Absolute Software
Price: £33.96 per year/1 device
LoJack is available for Windows and Apple laptops, with an Android version promised soon. After registering with the website, which requires a credit card even for the 30-day free trial, a serial number is provided which then enables you to install the software. It hides itself on the disk and that's the last you'll see of it. The computer logs in with Absolute Software every so often and checks for instructions.
If the laptop is stolen you log in to the website using another computer and there are Locate, Lock, Delete and Recover options. Lock stops the laptop from being used and displays a message on the screen, such as your contact details to enable someone finding it to return it.
Delete, as you might expect, allows you to erase all user files leaving just the operating system, which prevents someone accessing personal information.
Recover lets you report the computer as stolen. You must report it to the police first, though. Absolute Software then starts gathering information about the laptop and works with the police to recover it.
LoJack sounds great, but you can’t test is as thoroughly as with some of the others and you won’t know whether it works until your laptop is stolen. It requires a leap of faith when purchasing the software and trusting that Absolute Software can recover it.
LoJack lets you remotely lock a laptop and display a custom message on the screen
Find My iPhone
Price: Free/unlimited Apple devices
You might assume from the name of this Apple utility that it is just for finding your iPhone, but this isn’t the case and you can also find iPads, iMac computers and MacBook laptops. Unfortunately, you cannot track Windows laptops, but you can use a Windows PC to find where your Apple laptops and gadgets are located.
To turn on the service on a MacBook, go to the Apple menu, select Preferences, iCloud and turn on Find My Mac. You can then use Find My iPhone on an iPhone or iPad or go to icloud.com any computer with an internet connection, including Windows PCs.
The locations of all your Apple devices are displayed on a map and you can select the one you want. There are options to play a sound (even if the volume is set to mute) and to lock the laptop with a PIN code and display a message on the screen.
You can even erase the hard drive completely. Find My Mac can be turned off as easily as it is turned on, but the thief may not know this and you could determine the location and send a lock command it before they realise what has happened.
Find out where your MacBook is and remotely lock it or erase the hard drive
Next page: Prey, Norton Anti-Theft and miTracker
Here we continue our comparison of laptop tracking and recovery software:
Price: Free/3 devices
Prey is free for three devices and they can be Windows or Apple laptops, Android or iOS phones and tablets. There are Pro plans for companies with up to 500 devices too. Prey doesn’t hide itself, but the Start menu entries can be deleted after installation and the folder hidden. A password is required to uninstall it.
You can log in to the website, see a list of devices and access the control panel. There is a simple toggle switch to set a device as missing. This triggers reports, which are collected at regular intervals that can be as short as 10 minutes. Prey attempts to determine the location, IP address, nearest Wi-Fi hotspots, GPS and any other information available.
You can take screen shots in the hope of capturing a Facebook or Twitter page that identify the user, and a webcam photo. The computer can be locked and files can be erased.
Whereas Absolute Software (LoJack) handles the laptop recovery for you, it’s up to you to gather information using Prey and pass it on to the police. Despite being free, Prey is actually very good and you can easily test all the functions. This gives you confidence that should the worst happen, you might well be able to track your laptop and recover it.
The Prey control panel is excellent and has everything you need to locate your laptop
Price: £30 per year/3 devices
Norton Anti-Theft costs £30 per year for three devices and there are options for up to 10. These can be Windows and Apple laptops, and Android phones and tablets. It installs a desktop icon and Start menu entries, but you could delete or hide them and the uninstaller won’t run without a Norton Anti-Theft username and password.
Signing into your account via a web browser means you can see the location of the laptop on Google Maps. Updates are every hour, but if the laptop is stolen then clicking the Lock Device button increases the frequency.
Locking a laptop displays a custom message on the screen, such as a request to return it, and prevents it from being used until a PIN number is entered. Another feature is the ability to take photos using the webcam. You might get a nice picture of the thief to show the police.
Norton Anti-Theft seems lacking in features compared to Prey, but it works well enough and once the laptop is locked, it can’t be used. You can’t erase files as you can with Prey and it is up to you to work with the police to retrieve your lost or stolen laptop.
Norton Anti-Theft is doesn’t have many as many features as its competitors.
Price: £12.95 per year/1 laptop
miTracker is cheap if you only have one laptop and three years cover will cost you just user £26. It’s available only for Windows, but the software offers more than rivals and has file encryption as well. You can scramble the contents of personal files to prevent access and a file shredder will securely deletes files so they can’t be recovered.
If your laptop is lost you can log into the website and set the status to missing. It can be locked and you can enter a message encouraging the finder to return it to you. There are functions for deleting files and you can send commands to the laptop to delete images, documents, web browser files, zip archives, or any file type you like. These facilities are useful, but miTracker misses out on a trick that the others have: it cannot take webcam photos and get a picture of the person using your computer.
Fortunately, it does have a locate facility that finds where the laptop is being used and displays it on a Google map. You could then pass this information on to the police (we don’t recommend vigilantism). miTracker is OK and has encryption and secure file deletion, but there are better services.
miTracker has some useful file encryption and shredding facilities, and remote control
Next page: Conclusion
Laptop tracking software: Conclusion
Find My iPhone and miTracker do not take photos with the laptop’s built-in webcam and so they cannot show you who is using your computer. Aside from they are quite good and can lock the laptop and erase files. The main restriction with Find My iPhone is that it can only be used with Apple devices, but it’s free.
Norton takes photos and has remote locking, but you cannot delete your personal files remotely. Some people may worry the thief could find a way around the lock and access the disk.
For these reasons we recommend either LoJack or Prey. Prey is free for up to three devices and you can easily test all of its features, checking the location, grabbing desktop and webcam snapshots and so on, whereas LoJack isn’t free and you can’t test it as thoroughly.
However, there are lots of recovery stories on the LoJack website and the service has a good reputation. If you’re keen to save money, install Prey, but if you want to leave everything in Absolute Software’s hands, buy LoJack.
Install LoJack and let Absolute Software attempt to recover your laptop
Install Prey for free and recovery is entirely in your hands