Make Your Laptop Recoverable before It's Stolen

A couple of brazen laptops thefts in Seattle prompt this post. If your laptop is stolen, it will likely never be recovered unless you have already installed software that "phones home" when it's reported missing.Laptop recovery software is designed to be active constantly in the background, and not be removable by a thief unless he or she entirely erases the laptop and does so quickly. (It's called laptop recovery, but you can install it on desktop machines for the same purpose.) The best time to install this software is right now! Right this instant! The second best time is one minute before your computer is stolen. The worst time to think about installing? Right after your laptop is snatched. This kind of software scans regularly for a network connection, and sends a very small amount of data to a central server operated by the recovery software maker. If your laptop is stolen or goes missing, you go to the software maker's Web site, and enter a special code the firm gives you when you register the software that's unique to the laptop. The next time your laptop checks in, which could be when a thief powers up the computer to see what's on it and connects intentionally or accidentally to a Wi-Fi network, a recovery mode is activated. Regardless of the software, the recovery mode starts sending information about the current state of the computer to either the software maker's server (that's typical) or to a site or email you specify. Some software will start snapping pictures (without any audible sound) if there's a built-in camera, such as on Apple's series of laptops. Most will send network information. A few packages now use Wi-Fi networks to create a rough position using a national location database that's also used by Apple and other companies for phone positioning (to augment GPS when GPS is available). Depending on the company, you might be provided with this information and need to take it to authorities, or the company will call your local law enforcement for you and make arrangements to transfer the data. Many companies advertise a 90 to 99 percent recovery rate for laptops or desktop computers with their software installed in cases where a user has marked it as stolen. This is less unlikely than it may seem because of how easy it is for a computer to join a Wi-Fi network and how rapidly the software can send enough identifying information--such a picture of the thief! Authorities apparently pay close attention to these reports from laptop-recovery software firms, because if they find one laptop, they may find a dozen or 100. Some software requires an annual subscription fee that includes the software and monitoring. Others charge just a one-time fee, but you have to pay for upgrades in the future if you want newer features. Some prominent software includes (one-year price shown, multi-year discounts typically available): Computrace LoJack for Laptops ($40 or $60 per year). This software works as a black box, communicating directly with Computrace's monitoring center. Many Windows computers (see list) have an extra capability that the $60 version can activate: The software is partly stored in the BIOS, a part of a computer that can't be removed just by a thief erasing a hard drive. The $60 version can also let you remotely erase your hard drive to protect data, and comes with a limited $1,000 recovery guarantee. The $40 version is available for Mac OS X or Windows. GadgetTrak believes only you should get tracking data; this allows them to avoid having central storage systems for your data (it believes this could jeopardize your privacy), although the firm does work with law enforcement. The company offers several different packages for Windows and Mac OS X. Its Mac software, MacTrak ($25 per year), uses Wi-Fi positioning to provide a good location in a city or town, and sends email and uploads photos snapped via the built-in camera to a Flickr photo-sharing account (you can set up a basic account at no cost). Windows Standard Edition ($30) sends basic network infomration, while Search & Destroy ($65) can remotely destroy data on the laptop, too. Undercover 3 from Orbicule is what I use myself ($49 one-time fee). It's a Mac OS X only package that takes pictures of the active screen, snaps photos through the built-in camera, and uses Wi-Fi positioning data to obtain a location. The software also has a neat option that if the computer isn't recovered within a period of time after it's marked as stolen, it activates a mode that simulates slow screen failure. If the computer is then brought into a known repair location, like an Apple Store, a speech program is used to scream out that the computer is stolen and display a recover message on its screen. There are other options available, too; ask for recommendations from friends or computer-store staff if none of the above meets your needs.