Answer Line: Stop Would-Be Notebook Thieves in Their Tracks

I spend lots of time on the road with my notebook. How can I protect it from being stolen?

Alex Guzman, Bell Gardens, California

The high price and small size of notebooks make them attractive targets for thieves. And that's not to mention the value of the information they contain.

Most notebook thefts are crimes of opportunity: Someone spies something valuable that's been left unguarded, and snatches it in a split second. Keep your machine under wraps and close at hand when it's not in use. Never leave the system visible in your car; put it in the trunk or elsewhere out of sight.

In airports and other transit terminals, keep it in your lap, between your legs, or over your shoulder. If you need to get a cup of coffee, take your notebook with you. (Now aren't you glad you paid a little extra for that ultralight?) To avoid advertising its presence to light-fingered bystanders, tote it in a padded bag that doesn't look like a notebook case.

Remember that airport security is designed to protect you from terrorists, not from thieves. If your bag passes through the X-ray machine while someone ahead of you holds up the metal-detector line with a silver belt buckle, your property will sit unprotected for seconds or even minutes. If possible, don't place your possessions on the conveyor belt until the person in front of you has passed through the detector. Keep an eye on your things as they move through the X-ray machine.

After you arrive at your destination, don't leave the notebook in your hotel room when you step out. If you can't take it with you, hand it to the front desk clerk to check securely.

Safe at Home

You don't have to be on the road to lose your notebook. At your home or office, lock it with a security cable. Securitykit.com's $20 Notebook Security Kit uses the security slot on your portable and comes with a mounting barrel for anchoring it to a wall, desktop, or other flat surface; see FIGURE 1

FIGURE 1: Lock down your laptop with the $20 Notebook Security Kit lock and cable from Securitykit.com.
. PC Guardian's $60 Notebook Guardian uses a one-piece lock and cable with a tamper-resistant stainless-steel lock.

If your notebook is stolen despite your precautions, the loss of the machine may be the least of your problems. Even a new, high-end notebook is worth far less than the data that's likely to be on it. You don't want to lose that data, and you don't want a dishonest person to find it.

The data on a lost or stolen machine is easy to replace if you have backed it up. Online backup services such as IBackup are great for on-the-road data security. The backup is safe on the company's secured server, and you don't have to lug backup media around with you. Browse to "Online Backup Services" to read James A. Martin's description of IBackup and similar services.

Online backup services charge by the month, making them expensive over time, and they aren't much use if you're working somewhere that doesn't offer a broadband connection. A pocket-size USB hard drive may be a better approach to traveling backups--if you really carry it in your pocket. In a pinch, you can use a hard drive-based MP3 player for file backups. Apple's iPod Nano stores 4GB, and other flash players reach 8GB, so they're sensible backup options, too.

Hide Sensitive Info

Keep your PC's secrets by encrypting your private files. Scroll to "Protect Files and Folders" in my December column to read encryption software recommendations.

Tracking software increases your odds of recovering a stolen notebook. Such programs hide on your PC; even reformatting won't remove them. At regular intervals, the software reports your IP address to the service company, using whatever Internet connection it finds. When the crooks log on, the service records their IP address. Once you know the address, you can identify the ISP, and police can subpoena the ISP to ascertain the physical location of the Internet connection, use that information to obtain a warrant, and retrieve the stolen goods.

How effective are these services? One of them, Computrace, claims a success rate of 90 percent, although its statistics have not been independently confirmed. LoJack for Laptops, which is Computrace's cheapest service, costs $50 per year per computer. LaptopLocate charges only $20 a year, and WinLocate costs $18 annually. The latter two services just provide you with the IP address that your notebook reported from; Computrace works with the police to help you recover the machine.

Note: Watch our video, "How to Secure Your Laptop From Theft," for more information on how to prevent laptop theft.

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