How to Protect Yourself Against Laptop Theft

7:26 AM

About three months ago, one night three young black men busted in to my apartment and stole both my laptop and the laptop of a friend. While I had taken steps to protect my laptop against such an incident, my friend was not so lucky. I think that it is of vital importance that everyone know how to protect their laptop against the case of a theft, especially since laptops do not have the extent of theft protection services that cell phones do. This article is going to discuss different security methods you can use to help protect your data, prevent the thieves from using your laptop, and trace the location of your laptop. 

When considering a theft scenario, it is important to first consider which is more important to you - the protection of your data, or the recovery of your laptop. Laptop recovery is heavily dependent on the ability of the thieves to use the laptop, so if this is more important to you, I recommend leaving your laptop as open to usage as possible. Of course, there is a sort of balance that can be struck between the two objectives, but how that balance is struck is entirely dependent upon you.

Protecting Data/Preventing Usage

  • Use a strong user account password... encrypted or random passwords that utilize numbers, lowercase letters, uppercase letters, and special characters are best. Make sure your password is at least 8 characters long. 
  • The most surefire way to prevent thieves from installing over your hard drive is to set up a secure/strong BIOS password that requires a log in at boot before it will run any drives (like the CD ROM drive). Keep in mind this will NOT protect your hard drive from access... it will just prevent it from being accessed by that particular machine. If they take out the hard drive and put it in another machine, they can still access your data.
  • Encrypt sensitive data. There's various methods of doing this. If you just have a few files/folders you want to protect, you can encrypt them individually, or if most of your data is of sensitive nature you can encrypt the entire hard drive. 
  • Use group policy. Use the principle of least privilege. (If you need to, look these terms up... I'm not going to explain them in depth here.) Don't run an administrator account for your daily usage, but use a limited user account and simply utilize the administrator account for any administrative actions you need to fulfill. Even if you decide to use a weak password for your normal user account (or no password at all), make sure you use a secure password on the administrative account. 

Laptop Retrieval

  • Keep a record of not only the model number and serial number of your laptop, but the MAC address as well. In the case of a theft, the serial number can be uploaded to a national database by the police that is checked against the sales of laptops in places like pawn shops. The MAC address is a little more handy, though... with this, the police can get the local ISPs (internet service providers) to help trace the laptop's location. 
  • Consider using a tracing program like Prey to help locate your laptop. Keep in mind though that the thieves may know better than to attempt using the laptop without a new operating system installation first. 
  • Utilize the cloud. Services like Dropbox keep record of the IP addresses that connect to them. So, if a thief uses your user account and you have a cloud service like Dropbox running in the background, chances are you're going to be able to find out where they're located.
  • Consider using no password on your user account if data is not a concern, and utilize the services talked about above. A passwordless user account may be too much temptation for the thieves to pass up... and once they connect to the internet, they're caught. However, it is important to note that most of them know better than to try accessing the owner's user account.
  • Notify your community. Most thieves are smart enough to know better than to take a stolen laptop to a pawn shop... so most times they're going to try selling it on the street. The more people you can have looking out for your laptop in your community, the better your chances at retrieving it. Make sure you post about the theft on local services like Freecycle and Swip Swap... not only do these services have massive amounts of users, but a lot of the users tend to be the types that shop around for a bargain a lot/know where to shop for bargains, so they're more likely to notice if your laptop is being sold. 
  • Take a picture of your laptop. This will not only prove useful to the police, but the community as well. 
  • Know the differences between your laptop and other laptops of the same model. Make your laptop personally identifiable. Engraving is a great idea for this. Make note of every single scratch, dent, upgrade, etc. and do your best to make sure it is a laptop that stands out in the crowd.
  • Check places like Amazon, Craigslist, and Ebay for used sales of your laptop's model number daily. Another possibility is that the thieves will try selling your laptop online, since they don't have to give a serial number to do this. 
  • Consider offering a reward, or offering to drop charges, if your laptop is returned to you, and distribute flyers. Use a Google Voice account for contact so you don't give away your real phone number, and make sure if they do contact you that you meet in a place that is safe for both of you. If the laptop is of importance to your daily life (like you need it for school), make sure you say so in the flyer and make an emotional appeal to the thieves (for example, on mine I explained that I was a single mother with only two college classes left, and asked if the thieves could relate to that via a mother, sister, or their own experience). Do not threaten or intimidate.
  • Keep quiet about your activities. It may be tempting to shout out to everyone that you took steps to ensure its retrieval as a warning to the thieves, but know that if you do this you are possibly giving the thieves a heads up on how to get away with it. 

Please add comments to this article if you have any more ideas on how to fight back against laptop theft. However, if you have knowledge of how to circumvent any of these techniques, please keep those thoughts to yourself... we don't want to give the wrong people any ideas, and if I see any comments like that, they will be deleted

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  1. I worked in a small computer repair shop. When customers could prove ownership we helped them with lost passwords etc.

    Most of what you say is common sense.

    Bios passwords on some laptops can be erased with one or more of the following:
    1) cheap tools and a couple of wires.
    2) a replacement blank NV Ram Chip from ebay
    3) warranty replacement.

    Most buyers of new laptops don't register with the manufacturer, so they don't know who the owner is and will replace them. They won't replace because of a lost password, but will reset it. Thieves can however break the laptop to make replacement a necessity and get a new laptop.

    Passwords are useless once a laptop is in thieves hands. there are numerous programs that will break the password of any recent operating system within minutes.

    Thieves can disable internet access to gain access to files if that's what they want. I do agree that catching them red-handed by installing tracking software is a good idea

    So yes, encrypt sensitive data, and keep remote backups are pretty much the only true strategies you have in the face of theft. Laptops are easy to replace, the files you create are not. All the other work in attempting to get your laptop back simply reminds you of the horror, don't be so attached, get insurance make life easy, if not buy a low-cost laptop, replace with low-cost laptop. You can get a nice, used laptop that will perform most business functions for < $100. Someone steals it with your encrypted data and .. you get another quick, restore you backup & go.

    I hate the thieves as much as anyone, but also dislike dwelling on what happened, better to minimize the potential loss, and move on with life... oh & don't buy over-priced glossy fruit themed junk just so you can massage your ego with like-minded 'friends'.

  2. Good advice from both the original writer and our Elven friends :)

    For me, making life hard for the thief is preferable to leaving my machine in a state that allows them to use it.

  3. Good advice from both the original writer and our Elven friends :)

    For me, making life hard for the thief is preferable to leaving my machine in a state that allows them to use it.

  4. Full disk encryption is a must, lock BIOS with a password and prvent booting from anything else than HDD.

    Put large stickers on the laptop, make a few dents in it and/or add visible scratches if you want. Clean, look-like-new notebooks are more attractive to thieves. Old and used ones are much less attractive.

    Use some sort of a glue to prevent HDD replace or BIOS reset if you dare.

    Prey and similar SW is a double-edged sword. It requires a lot of luck and it only works on mentally challenged thieves who log in to the stolen system and connect it to the Net. For all the others, allowing the attacker to your system makes it much easier for them. So I don't do that.

    Instead, I've got GRUB protected with a long password and the only (and also the default) OS which can be booted without password does nothing else than display a large message that the laptop has been stolen and gives my contact details.

    I can't prevent a clever and determined thief to sell my laptop, but I can surely make it as difficult for him as possible.

  5. Just a note... I wrote this article right after the theft. I haven't been "dwelling" on the issue. I just waited to release the article because I wasn't sure if the theft had been instigated by someone that knew me, and I didn't want to give them any kinds of heads up on what I had done.

    I was fortunate enough to have another box with the same model laptop in it (caught a good sale so I bought two). I was planning on reselling it, but since the theft, it's became my main laptop. I got very, VERY lucky.

  6. What relevance AT ALL is it that it was 3 BLACK men? Would you not have minded if it was three white men? Of course you would. I think this kind of implicit racism brings down the quality of the article.

  7. What relevance AT ALL is it that it was 3 BLACK men? Would you not have minded if it was three white men? Of course you would. I think this kind of implicit racism brings down the quality of the article.

  8. OMG. I also used the word "young". Does that mean I'm discriminating against young people?

    It's a descriptive term, the same as "young".

    BTW, I'm BLACK MYSELF. And you're calling ME racist against BLACKS? Pshhh.