A laptop's portability makes it convenient--and an easy target for thieves.
Losing your laptop can be devastating, especially if you keep important documents and files on its hard drive, without a backup. Here are five ways to protect your laptop from being stolen (or from remaining stolen), as well as to safeguard the data you store on it.
1. Use a Physical Lock
Physically locking your laptop to an immovable object isn't exactly the coolest thing you can do, but it works. Just about every laptop on the market is equipped with a small lock slot that works with laptop locks such as the Kensington ClickSafe Keyed Laptop Lock ($45) or the Targus Ultra Max Laptop Cable Lock ($50).
These laptop locks work just as bicycle chain locks do: You find a large, immovable object, such as your desk, and wrap the metal cable around it. Insert the lock into your laptop's lock slot, and your computer becomes virtually theft-proof, assuming that the thief cares about keeping it in working condition. This isn't a viable solution for many places--you're unlikely to find a lot of immovable furniture in a coffee shop, for instance--but it is useful if you need to leave your laptop alone for any amount of time (say, in a hotel room).
2. Install Tracking Software
Well, your laptop has been stolen. Or perhaps you lost it, and some unscrupulous individual picked it up (in other words, they stole it).
How can you retrieve it? Fire up the laptop-tracking software that you had the foresight to install on your machine.
A new breed of laptop security software has arrived, and it's very effective. Using several different elements, including IP address locations, Wi-Fi positioning, and even the ability to turn on the laptop's webcam remotely, laptop-tracking software can help you get your laptop back.
A small Mac application, the $15-a-year Hidden uses IP addresses to pinpoint your laptop's location. On top of that, Hidden can take photos remotely using your laptop's webcam, as well as capture screenshots of what the thief does on your computer, so you can identify the culprit by both face and name (if the person happens to log in to an email account or social network).
LoJack costs $30 a year, and works on both Windows and Mac computers. In addition to tracking your stolen laptop, LoJack lets you freeze your computer remotely, create a custom message to display on its screen, and remotely erase files from your laptop--a huge plus for business users who might be carrying sensitive documents.
GadgetTrak works with both Windows and Mac machines, and costs $20 a year. GadgetTrak uses Wi-Fi positioning to find the location of your laptop within about 10 to 20 feet, and lets you take remote photos of your laptop's captor. The software is also tamper-proof, so no one can modify it on the laptop unless you deactivate the software from the GadgetTrak website.
Having laptop-tracking software installed on your portable doesn't guarantee its recovery, and you'll have to combine the software with some old-fashioned sleuthing (checking your local Craigslist ads for laptop fire sales, for example) in order to catch the thief. But it's definitely a start.
3. Back Up Your Data
Losing a $1000 piece of machinery is pretty bad, but losing a $1000 piece of machinery with all of your important files on it is much, much worse. If your laptop ends up in the wrong hands, the last thing you want is for all of your data to land there too.
For this reason, you should probably invest in a physical external hard drive, such as the supertough IoSafe Solo Pro ($350 for 1TB), which is both waterproof and fireproof, or the versatile, hot-swappable LaCie 2big Quadra ($369 for 2TB). You don't have to back up your computer every 5 seconds, but it is a good idea to back up the machine whenever you can remember to do so. It's also wise to keep sensitive documents off portable machines and drives entirely, if at all possible.
For backing up recent documents, I prefer using cloud-based backup services such as Dropbox or Mozy. Cloud-based backup services are much more convenient because you can access them from anywhere you have an Internet connection, and you don't have to plug your laptop into a physical hard drive.
Dropbox gives you 2GB of free storage space, which isn't enough for an entire hard-drive backup, but is usually plenty of room for recent documents and files. Dropbox works by putting a folder on your system: All you have to do is save a file in that folder, and it automatically syncs with Dropbox's server. The benefit of this autosync process is that even if someone steals your computer right then, you'll still be able to access that file by signing in to Dropbox from another computer.
Mozy is more of a traditional backup service. For $6 a month, Mozy gives you 50GB of space for backing up your entire hard drive (if you so choose). Mozy also offers multiple restore options, including Web-restore and DVD-restore, as well as through the Mozy software client. Restoring files from the Mozy cloud is a more involved process than simple syncing, though--it's backup software, not file-sharing software.
Next Page: Passwords and Insurance
4. Don't Store Passwords
It doesn't matter how many obscure punctuation marks your password has if your computer automatically remembers all of your passwords. Be wary of using password-management programs such as LastPass on anything that could be stolen (it's okay to stick LastPass on your 40-pound desktop, if you wish). You should also refrain from typing all of your passwords into a plain-text file on your computer.
[For tips on building secure, memorable passwords, check out "How to Build Better Passwords Without Losing Your Mind."]
If you lose your laptop, you should still take the precautionary measure of changing all of the passwords to your online accounts, just in case something slipped through the cracks. Also remember to file a police report and consider identity theft protection programs, especially if you ever made an online purchase using the laptop.
5. Get Insurance
You can find multiple kinds of insurance that will cover your laptop being stolen, lost, or dropped.
The first place to check is with the laptop's manufacturer: Many companies offer extra insurance (for an extra fee, naturally). You can also check with the store you purchased the laptop from--retailers like Best Buy typically sell extended warranties. Keep in mind, though, that extended warranties sometimes offer accident protection but rarely provide theft protection, so you may want to skip these plans if your main fear is losing your laptop.
If you can't get your laptop adequately insured by the manufacturer or by the store you purchased it from, take a look at your renter's or homeowner's insurance. Many renter's and homeowner's policies insure all of your private property, no matter where it is when it's stolen. These policies vary greatly, but usually they are limited to theft, vandalism, fire, and flooding--not accidental coffee spills or a fall from a windowsill.
If you use your laptop primarily for business purposes, your business's insurance policy may also cover it.
Beyond those options, if you still can't find the coverage you want, you can always consult third-party laptop and electronics insurance companies. These services offer the most comprehensive coverage for a notebook, though they can be expensive if your machine is already covered under another insurance policy. Safeware offers stand-alone notebook insurance that covers everything from theft and vandalism to cracked screens, accidental damage, and liquid spills.
I have not used Safeware personally, but I have used the similar, student-specific coverage from CSI Insurance Agency. It protects electronic equipment from theft, fire, floods, earthquakes, vandalism, electrical damage, water damage, and accidental damage. While I had CSI, I successfully filed three claims (one for laptop damage, and two for stolen cameras).
Even if you take all of these precautionary steps, having your laptop stolen will still be painful. But it will be less painful if you know that your files are backed up, your passwords are safe, your insurance company will pay for the loss, and you have a very real chance of catching the crook.