You have a 1 in 10 chance of having your laptop stolen this year, according to Gartner Group, which also reports that one laptop is stolen every 53 seconds in the U.S. Even more disconcerting is an FBI statement that 97% of stolen computers are never recovered. Most of those computers, however, probably didn't have tracking and recovery software installed on them before they were stolen. Though uncommon, retrieving a lost or stolen laptop is possible, with a little luck and the foresight to enable or install an application to help you locate your missing device.
Overview of Laptop Tracking and Recovery Software
Laptop anti-theft applications are designed to trace your laptop's location so that local law enforcement can go retrieve it (the police are often motivated to do so because these substantial leads help them capture serial criminals). For laptop tracking to work, you have to install or enable the application before the laptop gets stolen; the software stealthily runs in the background unbeknownst to the thief. Also, the laptop would have to connect to the Internet (i.e., thief would have to go online) before its location could be updated.
Although some tracking and recovery applications can be circumvented if the hard drive is reformatted, laptops are typically stolen not for the hardware, but for the data that resides on them, so thieves are less likely to reformat the computer for resale than to try to get the valuable information off of it first (One study found that the value of the data on an average laptop hard drive is $250,000). Other laptop recovery applications are embedded in the computer's BIOS (firmware), which makes them difficult, if not impossible, for a thief to remove.
Laptop Tracking and Recovery Applications
The most popular laptop retrieval software may be Absolute Software's Computrace LoJack for Laptops (leasing the LoJack brand name no doubt helps), which not only tracks your laptop via GPS/Wi-Fi but also allows you to remotely delete your data from the hard drive if your computer goes missing. Through partnerships with major OEMs like Dell, HP, and Sony, LoJack comes pre-installed on some new laptops and the first year of service may be free. Retail price of the PC- and Mac-compatible software is $40 per year or $60 with advanced tracking and a service guarantee of $1,000 if your stolen laptop is not recovered within 60 days of theft.
Another theft recovery application is GadgetTrack, which offers wi-fi positioning, location notification from a Web control panel, and webcam support to snap a photo of the thief. One year Mac or PC license is $34.95.
For Apple users specifically, Oribicule's Undercover offers protection for Mac OS X ($49 for single user license) and iPhone and iPad devices ($4.99). Orbicule states that they were able to recover 96% of stolen Macs with Undercover that were connected to the Internet, using the built-in iSight camera and screenshots from the stolen Mac. Only the individual users have the password that can initiate laptop/device monitoring -- a reassuring, additional privacy measure.
There are other location-based tracking services, like LocateMyLaptop.com and Loki.com, both free, but as these (and some of the above solutions) continuously announce your whereabouts to a central server, you may be concerned about privacy implications. Here's where Prey comes in -- it's a free, open source application that works globally on most operating systems. Since Prey is open source and location-tracking is only triggered by the user when needed, there may be fewer privacy concerns. As with other tracking software, Prey provides location reports, sits silently in the background gathering information like network/wi-fi details, and uses a laptop's webcam to photograph the thief. Besides protecting your privacy and working pretty well, it's free, so using Prey is pretty much a no-brainer for laptop users.
Use Remote Access Software to Catch a Thief
If your laptop is stolen before you install one of the recovery applications above, all may not be lost if you use remote access software, such as "Back to My Mac," which one tech-savvy Mac owner used to catch her laptop thief, or another remote desktop control program like pcAnywhere, GoToMyPc, LogmeIn, or SharedView. Tbe idea is you would remote into your stolen computer and use the webcam or other clues like information in open applications or IP address found in the network settings to find out where and who the thief is (most business laptop thefts are insider jobs).
Part of a Cohesive Security System
Tracking and recovery software increases your chances of getting your laptop back if it gets stolen or lost, but it should be used in tandem with other important security measures. These applications, for example, don't actually prevent theft, the way using cable locks and alarms can deter physical theft, and they don't secure the data on the device or prevent sensitive information from being accessed -- for that you need to encrypt your data with programs like TrueCrypt and adhere to best of practice security policies so you don't have sensitive information stored on your portable device unless absolutely necessary.
Regular backups are also part of that essential maintenance; frequent traveler Casey Wohl, "the Getaway Girl," lost her laptop when it was stolen from under the seat in front of her on a flight to Puerto Rico. "Going through something like this," Casey says, "makes you realize how miuch of your life is stored on a computer and how important it is to back it up." ... And encrypt your data and install tracking software to hopefully recover your computer.