Can I recover a stolen laptop?

Justin Yuen asked if it's possible to recover a stolen laptop.

[Email your tech questions to answer@pcworld.com or post them on the PCW Answer Line forum.]

Yes, in the sense that it's possible to win the lottery.

Actually, that's only the case if you haven't taken the proper precautions before it's stolen. If you do take them, your chances of recovery may actually be pretty good.

I'm only talking about recovering the hardware. The chances of recovering the files stored on that laptop are just about nil. Thieves and fences generally wipe the hard drive very soon after acquiring a hot PC. Of course, if you've been diligently backing up your files as you should, that's not a serious problem.

Even if you haven't taken precautions, you should report your loss to the police. If you have the serial number, include that in the report. Without it, should the cops recover your laptop along with other stolen loot, they'd have no way of knowing that the laptop was yours. And you'd have no way of proving it, either.

Your likelihood of success goes up considerably if you  prepare for the theft before it happens--and I don't just mean writing down the serial number. Consider subscribing to a service that will help you track the laptop via the IP address should it be stolen.

In fact, your laptop may already have the needed tracking software. Most major manufacturers include code for Absolute Software's LoJack for Laptops in their laptop BIOSes. That way, your laptop can be tracked even after the thieves have wiped the hard drive. Check Absolute's BIOS Compatibility page to see if yours qualifies.

If yours lacks the BIOS support, you can still use LoJack's software, but that doesn't provide the same level of security.

Either way, you're not going to get the laptop back unless you subscribe to their service before the theft. The subscription costs $40 a year. The company claims a 75-percent recovery rate, but I have no way of independently verifying that (and no, I'm not going to leave 100 laptops on park benches to find out).

Other companies, such as GadgetTrak, offer similar services at lower prices. Again, it's impossible to reliably ascertain who does a better job.

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