Monday, August 29, 2011

Protecting Yourself Against Computer Theft

Photo by kpishdadi

Unfortunately in July 2011, I joined the countless victims of computer theft when my laptop was stolen out of the overhead compartment of a plane. It wasn't until that time that I realized how much I was unprepared for such an event and how your life could be changed in just a few seconds.

Over the next several weeks I frantically took steps to protect myself (of course this was after the fact) and even though I am still feeling the effects of the crime, I have learned a lot through talking to others and researching the internet. I am by no means an expert, but I know a lot more now than I did before and hope that the information I am sharing will help you protect your computer and possibly your identity against theft.

According to the Kensington website a laptop is stolen every 53 seconds in the U.S., mind you that's just laptops and only in the U.S. Now you can just imagine if this figure were to include desktop computers and world wide.

Overall, about 5.5 million computers were stolen in the U.S.A. in the past three years, with only 165,000 (3 percent) of those being recovered. In most cases, the computers were laptops (68 percent) followed by mobile devices, and finally desktop systems. These were primarily stolen when people were on the move somewhere, instead of being at a home or in an office.

Not surprisingly, only 21 percent of those surveyed used extensive data protection (more than a simple log-in password), but about 70 percent did not use any safeguard or security protection at all and fewer than 10 percent use any form of encryption. A little over half of those who had computers stolen also had been subjected to other thefts in the past year, and because of theft, more than 70 percent of those in the survey claimed their computer downtime was at least a few days but as long as a month after the theft.

Unfortunately with this new era comes many risks. Laptop computers have become a target of choice for thieves all over the country. Why? Because they are small, valuable, can be removed quickly, are easily hidden, and there is a market for them. A good laptop can be worth up to $5,000 or more. A thief can sell a stolen laptop to an unsuspecting used computer store or pawnshop, and easily receive up to half its value in cash. Another reason criminals find the laptop such an attractive item to steal is the legal consequence - most criminals know that the penalties for a property crime (theft) are less severe than those of a crime against a person (robbery).

The real cost of a stolen computer.

The cost of a stolen laptop is not just its replacement cost, but also the cost of peripherals such as modems and network cards, the installed software, the cost of configuring and loading replacement software, and the cost of lost time for the laptop owner while the computer is being replaced. An even greater cost (especially if your employer issued your laptop) is the potential exposure and liability that results from lost confidential corporate and client information.

Identity theft is also growing at an alarming rate. According to the Federal Trade Commission in the U.S., over 27 million people have been victimized in the past 5 years alone. That's 1 out of every 10 Americans.

As technology advances and we become more dependent on our laptops, desktops and mobile devices to multi task, shop on line, browse the internet and communicate, we tend to let our guard down. The sheer number of tasks we can perform on a computer and the ease of use has made us so comfortable that sometimes we tend to forget that there are dishonest people out there just waiting to get their hands on our devices as well as our sensitive information.

After my laptop was stolen, the very first thing I did was call the airline to file a report. As the agent ran down the list of returned properties waiting to be claimed in the lost and found department, I was actually surprised at how many laptops were on the list. I was hoping that by chance if these laptops had been turned into lost and found, mine would be as well. As the days passed I finally gave in to the fact that my laptop was gone forever. I had already begun my feverish pitch of recovering information and deleting sensitive documents and files just in case I did not retrieve my laptop.

I soon realized that I had fallen short in the area of preventing my devices and my identity from theft, but at the same time I had taken some precautionary measures that in the end saved me a lot of headaches. The first and most important step you can take to protect yourself in the case of computer theft is to backup your computer on a regular basis. After a few hard drive crashes in the past years and no backups, I finally got the message and began backing up all of my computers to external hard drives as well as a third party backup service. External hard drives can be found in a multitude of storage sizes and at a variety of stores from Walmart to Best Buy and over the last few years have become quite reasonable.

Some of you may think backing up to an external site is overkill, but just think about the possibilities of the things that can happen to your external drive; hardware failure, theft or damage of your backup device, any of these could render your backup useless. service. is my service of choice, mainly because of the ease of setup and use. You basically set it up once and forget about it. All of the files that you have chosen are seamlessly backed up in the background while you work and for me the peace of mind is well worth the nominal price. Whenever you create new files or modify existing ones, the Carbonite online backup software sends encrypted copies of those files over your high-speed Internet connection to a Carbonite data center. You can even access your files from any computer, iPhone, Android or Blackberry connected to the internet.

Luckily for me I still had possession of my external hard drive and had just backed up my data before my laptop was stolen. When I purchased my replacement laptop, my local Apple store was able to restore all of my files, images, settings, programs and important documents to my new laptop just as if I had my old laptop sitting in front of me.

Secondly, but just as important is to password protect your computer upon start up (in other words a password must be entered in order to gain access to your computer. Using a strong password that contains letters (capital and lower case and numbers) is among the most important steps you can take to protect your computer from hackers and other unwelcome users. As a further precaution it is always a good idea to password protect your email accounts as well. There is nothing worse than the thought of prying eyes reading your email.

Another precaution that I had taken and can't say enough about is a program called 1Password. I wish I could say that I had started using 1Password as a precautionary measure, but truth be known I started using it because I couldn't remember all of the different user names and passwords that I had created over the years. We all know that using the same user name and password over and over for logging into sites is a dangerous practice that could lead to catastrophe.

1Password is a program that you can download from the internet for a small cost. You can create strong, unique passwords and 1Password remembers and restores them for you automatically. You are always in control of where your data is. The cloud is an option but not a requirement, but if you do choose to use the cloud, you can sync your passwords across multiple devices. Best of all strong encryption keeps your data safe and keyloggers and phishing criminals are thwarted. 1Password has won many awards and is by far my all time favorite program. 1Password even offers a free trial and a 30 day money back guarantee.

Last, but not least, I have insurance through my local Allstate agent, that protects my household contents including my electronics and computers. I was fortunate that I had chosen the option to cover full replacement value, meaning that my property is covered for what it would actually cost to replace it. I ended up receiving full replacement cost of my laptop including the briefcase I used to carry it in less my deductible.

Some additional security measures that I can suggest in addition to the above information are the following.
1. In direct contradiction with what some people advise, I say carry your laptop in a distinctive case or bag. One that doesn't look like a laptop bag is even better. My laptop that was stolen was in a non descript black rolling briefcase, the kind you can buy at the office supply stores all day long. There was nothing unique about the briefcase, therefor making it very easy to be taken and never missed. I have since purchased a neon purple rolling hard sided bag that looks like nothing more than a rolling overnight bag. Now I dare anyone to steal it and not be noticed.

My New Inconspicuous Computer Bag

How do theft prevention technologies work?
There are a variety of technologies that exist that can assist you in protecting your laptop computer. Here are two ways these new systems work:

Two-way wireless security alarms for laptops consist of an alarm installed on the computer itself and a remote key-chain device. If the alarm detects movement, it first checks whether you're nearby. If not, your key-chain remote is alerted, emitting a "chirp." You can then choose to trigger the 110-decibel alarm on your laptop. The alarm can also be set to trigger solely on detecting motion.

Another type of alarm works by setting up a security perimeter for the laptop. Moving the laptop beyond the perimeter sets off an alarm, locks keys to encrypted files, and disables the computer, making it useless to unauthorized users.

My personal opinion on the alarms is that it could be more of a nuisance than it's worth. We have all become so used to the annoying car alarms that go off at the drop of a hat, that I can't help but think it would be the same reaction with a computer alarm and if you were not within ear shot I'm not sure it would be much help. I would also worry that the alarm would go off falsely and there I would be on the plane that has already taken off trying to frantically fish my laptop from under the seat while it deafens everyone sitting within 20 rows of my seat.

5. A more appealing option to the alarm system that I have researched at some length is the computer tracking software. Until I fell victim to computer theft, I didn't even know such a thing existed, but these nifty programs allow individuals to track, locate and help recover their stolen/lost laptop computers. There are several out there, but the sake of time, I will just address one as I think it offers the most bang for your buck. LocatePC is a computer tracking software that lets you track and monitor your laptop computer from ANYWHERE in the world and from ANY computer. It also offers you the ability to delete the data remotely from ANYWHERE on your registered laptop computer, if it is ever lost or goes missing. Here's how it works. Every time your laptop connects to the internet, software residing on the laptop sends a stealth message informing a Secure Online Monitoring Center of its exact location.

What I really like about these programs is that depending on which one you choose, you can record the thieves every key stroke, so if they type in their address, name, etc. you've got a record. You can also take a snap shot of the thief if you have a camera installed on your computer. On some of these programs you can even send messages to the thief and lock them out and/or remotely wipe your hard drive. Granted if your dealing with a savy individual, your computer or mobile device will never connect to the internet until it is either sold or wiped clean in which case this particular program wouldn't do much good. Let's face it though there are plenty of stupid thieves out there.

As I did mention earlier it is a good idea to password protect your computer and if you do, then it is highly unlikely the thief will even get logged onto your computer in the first place, but an option to this is to create a secondary user account with restricted access. That way the thief can still log onto the internet, but not be able to view any of your sensitive files.

6. Don't wait until something bad happens to sign up with an identity theft service. As soon as I found out that my laptop was stolen I immediately signed up with TrustedID. Again there are several of these companies to choose from and they all offer basically the same service. You can decide which one suits your needs the best. I chose TrustedID because they had a family plan, were competitively priced and I was able to reach a representative immediately to answer all of my questions.

7. I wont go into a lot of detail about cloud computing and I have tried to keep it as simple as possible because people use it for so many different purposes. In a nutshell, if you use cloud computing and your laptop, computer or mobile device is stolen or lost, you still have access on any computer to all of your data that you placed into the "cloud" For instance at our company, our shop managers are able to complete their daily reports at the end of each day and upload them to the cloud. Rod and I are then able to view the reports from each of our computers or any other computer we choose to use.

Whether you realize it or not, you're probably already using cloud-based services. Gmail and Google Docs are two prime examples; we just don't think of those services in those terms. Imagine your PC and all of your mobile devices being in sync—all the time. Imagine being able to access all of your personal data at any given moment. Imagine having the ability to organize and mine data from any online source. Imagine being able to share that data—photos, movies, contacts, e-mail, documents, etc.—with your friends, family, and coworkers in an instant. This is what personal cloud computing does.

Some of my favorite cloud computing programs are Evernote, Dropbox and Xmarks. Just remember along with the convenience of cloud computing there are risks and you should take measures to protect your data. If you are sending sensitive data to the cloud it is always a good idea to encrypt it first.

8. While traveling, if you are staying at a hotel or rental that you are not familiar with, leaving your laptop in your room unattended may not be the best idea. Many places have a safe that you can keep your laptop in until your return. I can't tell you how many times I left my laptop in the hotel safe on our first trip to Ecuador. If there is not a safe where you are staying and it is unfeasible to carry your laptop with you, then the next best thing is to use a cable lock to secure your laptop to a piece of stationary furniture in the room.

9. Keep the serial number of your computer in a safe place as you will need it if your computer is stolen.

I have been reading about encrypting my hard drive. Just the sound of this is daunting, but I do plan to research it further and look at my options. Disk encryption uses software or hardware to encrypt every bit of data that goes on a disk or disk volume. Disk encryption prevents unauthorized access to data storage.

 If you computer or laptop is stolen you should follow the procedures below to help increase your chances of regaining possession of your property.

1. File a police report

2. Call your computer manufacturer and file a report. There is always a chance that the person in possession of your computer may need service at some point and time and if they take it in to a repair shop, the serial number may trigger a red flag on the manufacturers database.

3. Report a stolen laptop to local authorized repair centers. Laptop technicians often keep local lists to make certain that they are not working on a stolen laptop. On several computers the main identity or administrator cannot be changed or altered unless a complete wipe of the laptop has been done. This requires a complete reinstall of all the applications on the computer. The applications are usually worth much more to a thief and a prospective buyer, than the stolen laptop itself, which leaves the thieves in a difficult position. The thief probably isn't even aware of this choice, and the main identity is simply left intact increasing your chances to recover the stolen laptop provided you reported the laptop theft.

4. Report your stolen laptop or computer to a site such as is is a free, global stolen property database, allowing users an easy way to report laptop theft, to report a stolen computer (links to tip page) or to report any other stolen item.

5. If any financial information was stored on the stolen laptop, report this to all credit card companies and banks. If you are a victim of computer theft, be aware that some browsers and websites save log in and password information, allowing the thief access to the website without logging in.

6. If you have renter's or homeowners' insurance, report the stolen laptop computer to your insurance company. You may need to provide the police report number associated with the laptop theft in order to collect financially.

What can you do to reduce the risk of having your laptop stolen?

Don't leave a laptop in an unlocked vehicle, even if the vehicle is in your driveway or garage, and never leave it in plain sight, even if the vehicle is locked—that's just inviting trouble. If you must leave your laptop in a vehicle, the best place is in a locked trunk. If you don't have a trunk, cover it up and lock the doors.

Parking garages are likely areas for thefts from vehicles, as they provide numerous choices and cover for thieves. Again, never leave your laptop in plain sight; cover it or put it in the trunk.

Do be aware of the damage extreme temperatures can cause to computers.

Carry your laptop in a nondescript carrying case, briefcase, or bag when moving about. Placing it in a case designed for computers is an immediate alert to thieves that you have a laptop.

Going to lunch, or taking a break? Don't leave a meeting or conference room without your laptop. Take it with you, or you run the risk that it won't be there when you return.

Lock the laptop in your office during off-hours.

Don't have your own office? Use a cable lock that wraps around a stationary piece of furniture. Or put the laptop in a locked closet or cabinet.

Don't let unaccompanied strangers wander around in your workplace. Offer assistance and deliver the visitors to their destinations.

Apply distinctive paint markings to make your laptop unique and easily identifiable. Liquid white-out is a good substance to apply.

Consider purchasing one of the new theft alarm systems specially made for laptops.

    What about when you are flying with your laptop?

    Flying to a conference? Never check laptops as luggage at the airport because they can disappear. The Federal Aviation Administration has issued a warning about an increasingly common scam—stealing laptops from the conveyor belts of metal detectors. At the X-ray scanner two thieves get in line. The first one passes through the scanner quickly. The second person moves slowly, being delayed by pockets full of change, keys, or other items. Meanwhile, the travelers stuck behind the thief have already placed their belongings, including laptops, on the conveyor belt. The first thief picks up the laptop as if it were his or her own and walks away while the other thief continues to hold up the line. Only put your laptop on the conveyer belt when you are next to line. Keep your eye on your laptop as it comes off the conveyor belt. And alert security personnel right away if you think someone is attempting to steal your computer.

    My advice..... always place your laptop in it's case under the seat in front of you. If the laptop bag or case that you are using will not fit under the seat, then remove your laptop and stow it under the seat where you can keep your eyes on it.

    Always keep the laptop next to you in airports and crowded public areas.

    The absolute best advice I have heard was told to me by one of the apple trainers at my local store. He said "If you have a file or document that would absolutely devastate you if it got into the wrong hands, don't put it on your computer". This is such simple advice, but not necessarily practical in this day and age. As many of us do, we depend on our laptops to be able to run our business' from wherever we are.

    There is a wealth of information regarding this subject on the internet. It is always best to do your own research to determine the products and actions that best suit your own needs, but I hope that the information I have provided will help others to avoid the time and cost of recovering and rebuilding lost or stolen data.

    I would love to hear from readers who have any comments or advice to share in order that could help others deal with or better yet avoid computer theft altogether.


    1. Shelly --- This shows how inept I am at computer type stuff. I just wrote the longest comment but couldn't figure out the part about choosing a method to send. Let's see if this works.

    2. OK that worked so here's a repeat. I'm so impressed with your willingness and ability to do techy research. Grampy's smiling down on you for sure. I really need to change my passwords since I am the guilty party who uses the same one for everything. I'm so afraid I'll forget if I have more than one. Time to investigate the service you mentioned for that purpose.
      Susie and I had so much fun being together last week, in spite of the aching backs and gallons of sweat. It was such a relief to finally empty the storage and after all that, Susie came home with me and rearranged my whole house. I just love it. She is quite the decorator. Now I miss her and realize how much I would like to be closer to my family. Maybe some day I'll come visit you and see the finished product. It looks absolutely amazing. I'm just wondering, if I made a bookmark out of your old blog, would I have access to all the comments that you lost? Who knows, certainly not me. School is about to start so I'm back to reinventing the wheel and going nuts with our new language arts program. It's like a giant maze that we're all trying to figure out. I've decided they're trying to sabotage all the teachers in LA on purpose. Hugs to all of you and please keep writing. Reading your words warms my heart and makes me so proud of our family. Sally

    3. Well well well, another soon-to-be expat couple from Huntsville! My husband Ken has taken his car to you guys and had a conversation with you about moving to Ecuador. Glad to see your blog, look forward to reading all about your adventures.

      Yes, the Apple store here in Hsv is great, I just bought an iMac to replace my old, and I have my Macbook that I never ever let leave my sight. It's my work laptop, too. Your post contains lots of useful information, and I am working now to encrypt files, re-do passwords, etc. So easy to do on a Mac versus the PC in my opinion!

      Have you guys met Larry and Jenny Jerdon? They are from Hsv and took a trip to EC this summer, spent some time in Cuenca. We will be settling on the coast, Salinas area, and hope to have the move complete next summer (Aug/Sept 2012), once my kiddo is settled into college.

      Hope to meet with you guys before your big move!

      Tami Herrington
      Huntsville/Huntspatch/Huntsvegas AL :)

    4. wow; well researched and well written. i will pass this on to my friends.

      good luck with your project; cuenca is a lovely city!

      thanks for sharing!

      lisa - from mississippi, costa rica y ecuador (manabi)

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