Welcome to PC Advisor's ultimate guide to laptop-theft prevention, full of smart, simple ways to secure your portable PC, and return it if it gets lost.

Sadly in today's society one of your biggest worries will be how to keep your valuable IT equipment such as laptops, PDAs and iphones and the even more precious data they contain out of the hands of thieves. Laptop and mobile phone thefts from parked cars and conference rooms may grab headlines, but a far greater number of devices simply get left behind in cabs, on trains, and even on airplanes.

YouGetItBack.com reports that 1 million mobiles were lost or stolen last year in Britain. At Heathrow, the UK's busiest airport, an average of around 120 laptops are handed in every month, of which at least 15 or so will end up at auction because there is no way of returning them to their rightful owner.

Most of us can weather the physical loss of a laptop or mobile, especially if they are covered by an insurance policy. But the files on the machine may raise more-troubling issues - they can hold our own financial data and sometimes even data that relates to the companies we work for, and they are more than likely not backed up. You can take several key steps to protect both your laptop and your data. By adopting these measures, you'll greatly reduce your risk of losing key hardware and data.

Track your laptop with an ID

The first step is to slap an ID tag on each laptop, BlackBerry, digital camera, and USB stick you own and record it with a recovery service. An astonishingly large number of people never record even the serial numbers of their equipment, making it impossible for authorities to reunite found items with their rightful owners.

Tracking tags give you an opportunity to enter serial number information as you tag each item, after which you can use the recovery service as a basic inventory system. (You should definitely maintain serial-number records, as well as purchase receipts, in case of insurance claims.)

Recovery services report recovery rates of 75 percent and higher on tagged items. Evidently, most people who find laptops are honest, and by offering prepaid returns and a reward on the tag, which usually lists a free phone number, the service makes it easy to do the right thing.

Each item is registered on the web with identifying information; then the recovery service usually contacts you to arrange return if an item is found. The price is usually around £7 per label, with quantity discounts. Vendors that offer labeling and recovery services include BoomerangIt, TrackItBack, and YouGetItBack.com.

Some of these companies sell lifetime service for a fixed price, while others use a yearly or period subscription model. Some charge a recovery fee if an item is found and TrackItBack will even send you a free replacement tag if the original comes off.

The recovery firms unanimously cite privacy considerations and their 24-hour phone service as reasons to use their labels instead of just a taped-on business card. The labels themselves may deter theft, as they render an item harder to fence and they are available for portable projectors, keys, Bluetooth headsets, GPS devices, luggage, and more - not just laptops and mobile phones. Anything that moves can and probably should be protected.

NEXT PAGE: Smart software to track stolen laptops and the importance of backing up.

Sadly in today's society, keeping valuable IT equipment such as laptops, PDAs and iphones and the even more precious data they contain out of the hands of thieves is one of our biggets concern. But just what can we do to minimise the risk of theft?

Rely on recovery software

If a thief steals your laptop, tracking and recovery software can help you get it back. For £25.95 per year you can use Absolute Software's ComputraceOne - a tracking utilitiy that connects periodically to a central server, which can then trace your laptop's location on the internet and summon the local police to recover it. Absolute Software claims that Computrace can survive on a laptop even if the thief successfully reinstalls the operating system, reformats the hard drive, or (in some laptop models) swaps out the hard drive.

The laptop's location may be pinpointed by IP address or by GPS, depending on the device. Absolute even offers a Data Delete capability that can remotely erase the entire hard drive of the stolen PC or specific data files – allowing users to keep confidential data out of the hands of strangers. Discounts are available and vary depending upon number of devices covered and duration of contract, but the overall expense pales in comparison to the cost of data loss.

Back up and encrypt your data

Regardless of the precautions you take, a laptop may still get lost or stolen. So it's vital to keep the loss to a minimum by ensuring that all important data is backed up and encrypted.

Encrypting data on laptops and on USB drives is relatively easy these days, thanks to numerous inexpensive security tools that provide military-grade encryption. But these programs are only as effective as their users allow them to be, so make sure that you understand how to take care of the equipment. For instance, instead of letting a laptop sleep during travel, it should be shut down completely, thereby locking the drive.

You must also know which folders are encrypted and how to back up files. An online backup/sync service can handle this task very efficiently. Make sure that the one you use demonstrates its routine so you can tell whether it is functioning properly.

NEXT PAGE: Why your laptop is as valuable as you wallet.

In a bid to minimise the risk of theft of laptops, iphones and other valuable IT equipment, Becky Warring looks at the best software and services to keep burgalars at bay.

Educate yourself and your employees

The human factor in laptop security may be the most important one, and it is certainly the easiest to overlook. Most laptops are accidentally abandoned, not purloined, and even instances of actual theft usually amount to crimes of opportunity. Physical security is the single best way to prevent loss.

Businesses should develop a written company policy on safeguarding mobile equipment, and periodically reinforce awareness of the consequences of laptop theft. Whether its a company or personal laptop, you need to realise that along with your laptop, you will also lose personal web passwords, emails, any work not backed up, and whatever else they might have stowed in the laptop bag - such as keys, USB flash drives and company papers.

Workers should also be reminded about the importance of taking personal responsibility for company property, and review the consequences of noncompliance. Periodic spot-checks ensure that people are adhering to company guidelines. The need to use backup and encryption software should also be emphasied. In all of these security systems, the user is the weak link.

Finally carry an unobtrusive bag that doesn't scream 'laptop inside'. Messenger bags, knapsacks and rolling overnighters with inner pockets all make good alternatives to dedicated laptop bags. You may also want to invest in an alarm. The Belkin USB Laptop Security Alarm functions in the same way as cable locks but also sounds an alarm if someone cuts the cable.

A little preparation can go a long way toward preventing laptop theft, and toward recovering a machine after it's lost. For less than £100 per machine, you can add tags, tracking software, and locking systems that may save you many times that amount.