Secure Your Tech Gear

What to Do When You Lose Your Tech Gear

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Protect Your Laptop From Loss or Theft

Losing your smartphone is bad enough, but losing your laptop can wreak serious havoc in your life. When your PC skips out on you, not only must you cope with lost data and the risk of having your information compromised, but you must also replace the laptop, which can be an expensive proposition. I'll explain how to improve your odds of getting your laptop back if it's lost or stolen, and share a few tips for securing your personal and business data.

Record your assets: A cheap laptop may cost as little as $400, but many business users and gamers carry machines worth $1500 to $2000--or more. Re­­gardless of how much money you spent on your laptop, it's wise to keep re­­ceipts related to your purchase, take a picture of your laptop, and register it on your homeowner's or renter's insurance policy. That way, losing your laptop won't have to be a huge financial burden on top of all the unavoidable hassles you'll face. (For more tips on dealing with insurance companies, see "Insurance Assurance."

Back up often: If you haven't been backing up your data as frequently as you should, don't feel bad--just go do it. Do it now. Do it weekly. But don't simply copy your files onto DVDs. Perform full system backups to a reliable, high-capacity external drive using Windows Backup or a similar backup utility. For a complete guide to using Windows Backup, see "Create Idiot-Proof Backups With Windows' Built-In Tools."

Back up redundantly: In addition to getting into the habit of maintaining a local system backup on an external drive, it's smart to back up your most important data (or even your entire system) to a remote, cloud-based service such as Mozy. That way, if catastrophe strikes your home or your office, you'll still have all of your information saved in a separate, secure location. For advice on selecting an Internet backup service that meets your needs, see "Find the Right Online Back­up Service."

Install a Recovery App and Sign Up With a Tracking Service

If your laptop is stolen, you have about a 2 percent chance of getting it back. But your odds can drastically improve if you run a tracking and recovery app such as zTrace or LoJack for Laptops.

For about $60 per year, with tracking service, these apps hide in your PC's BIOS and periodically connect to the Internet to report their location. If your laptop disappears, just contact the company to activate tracking and recovery services that will respond to a signal from your laptop and record its location with surprising accuracy, based on the IP address that it connects from.

Once either LoJack for Laptops or zTrace locates your laptop, the service will work with the appropriate law enforcement authorities to investigate the theft and reclaim your equipment. In addition, you can initiate a remote data wipe that immediately begins erasing everything on your hard drive in a manner that the local user can't interrupt or override. That way, even if the police never find your computer, your data won't fall into the wrong hands.

Of course, not everyone is dishonest, and your laptop might find its way into the possession of a well-intentioned soul who wants nothing more than to return it to you. For such an eventuality, it makes sense to label your laptop with your name, phone number, and e-mail address; a Good Samaritan who finds your laptop can then ring you up and arrange to reunite you with it.

Protect Your Other Mobile Tech Gear

Laptops and cell phones aren't the only devices that can cause trouble when they stray from their owners. Losing e-book readers, media players, GPS devices, portable hard drives, and even thumb drives can be expensive in terms of both replacement costs and data loss.

Most specialized mobile devices can't run high-end tracking and recovery software, but you can make them less anonymous by labeling them with recovery tags. One approach is simply to print your name and phone number on a return address label and affix it to the device, but you may get better re­­sults from a professional asset-recovery service like StuffBak.

StuffBak; click for full-size image.
StuffBak offers a reward to those who find and return your stuff, increasing the odds that you'll get lost gear back quickly.
For about $10, you can buy a preactivated aluminum asset tag from StuffBak, preprinted with a unique ID number, StuffBak's Web address and toll-free phone number, and a reward offer that gives whoever finds the device an incentive to return it. When the finder reports the device's ID number to StuffBak, the company will arrange for a courier to pick it up and return it to you.

StuffBak's labels come in various sizes, ranging from tiny circles for cell phones and thumb drives to large, highly visible tags for laptops to wrap-around labels that you can affix to the zipper of a travel bag.

Don't leave your portable drive's data exposed to whoever finds it. Encrypt it with the free TrueCrypt utility.
Portable hard drives can be particularly troublesome to lose, because you don't want to share the data on them with the world. To protect your business and personal information, consider using a robust utility such as the open-source TrueCrypt encryption software to protect the drive's contents from snoops.

TrueCrypt creates a secure volume on your disk, encrypting data on the fly as your PC reads and writes from the drive. When you first access the drive after connecting it, you simply enter a strong password; thereafter, it functions just as any other drive does. But if the drive ever gets lost, anyone who tries to read what's on it will have difficulty doing so. TrueCrypt works on USB keychain drives, as well.

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