How to keep your laptop out of thieves' hands

Tech Commands / Kim Komando

So there you are, rushing to catch a plane. You've got an important presentation on your laptop PC, along with sensitive company and personal information. And then, suddenly, it's gone.

Either you've lost it, or it's been stolen. Now you're in a real jam.

Airports and hotels are favorite places for thieves. Laptops disappear from both and that's bad enough. But often, irreplaceable data has gone with them. According to Safeware, an insurance agency specializing in insuring high-tech equipment, 591,000 laptops vanished in 2001.

None of this has to happen to you. But you have to be extra careful today. With the increased security at airports, losing track of a laptop is easier than ever. Here are six guidelines to help you avoid seeing your notebook PC disappear or, if it does, help you find it or get a quick replacement.

Tips for getting through security checks

Oddly, some airports have collected stacks of laptops. They're left behind by harried passengers in security areas. Most are reclaimed eventually. But some people never come back for their machines.

Obviously, you've got to allow yourself plenty of time when you fly today. When I travel, I carry my laptop in a Targus backpack. There's lots of room in there, and it's inconspicuous. I see fashionable businesspeople carrying laptops in expensive cases. They're asking for trouble. Those cases say, "Laptop! Laptop! Steal me!"


Security people most likely will want to check the laptop. If possible, handle it yourself, rather than having them do it. Frankly, they're not all sophisticated computer users.

When recently traveling through the Los Angeles airport, I had to give some hints to the security experts on how to open my laptop. "Just slide the button there right on the top," I told the perplexed guard. Don't be afraid to speak up. You don't need your machine damaged gratuitously.

Be sure your battery is charged. The security people may well want to turn on the machine. Most important, don't let it out of your sight. This becomes especially difficult if you are selected for a random head-to-toe check.

Once on board your flight, put the computer safely stowed in your bag under the seat in front of you. Try to avoid putting it in the overhead bin. Others will have more access to it there.

Have sensitive data? Encrypt it

If you have sensitive information on your computer, consider encrypting it. Programs such as Pretty Good Privacy make the job easy. If you have Windows XP, you already have the tools needed. While the thief has your machine, these extra steps will make it much more difficult to access the laptop's data.

Encryption will protect your business secrets, but it won't retrieve your data. To do that, you've got to back up your information to another computer. If you run your own server, you can easily upload files to it.

You don't have to back up everything on the laptop. Just copy the files you will need to the server. If your laptop should be stolen on your trip, you may be able to borrow a computer at your destination and download your important files. Finding time for backups is a pain, I know. Lots of people don't bother. But backups can save you.

Make your MP3 player do double-duty

If you don't have a server, or don't want to back up to it, take a look at MP3 players. Some today have 20-gigabyte hard drives. They are easily hooked to a laptop through the USB or FireWire ports. The data can then be copied to the MP3 player. These things can copy any data, not just MP3s. Stick it in you

r baggage.

Archos, for instance, makes players with hard drives that range from 6 to 20 GB and cost $200 to $350. They will connect to your computer via the USB port. Copying files to them should be fast and easy. Creative Labs and SONICblue also make MP3 players with huge hard drives.

Trace a stolen laptop's location

If your laptop does get stolen, wouldn't it be great if the system could do the high-tech equivalent of phoning home? There are programs that will report the location of a stolen laptop. They work when the laptop connects to the Internet.

Some claim to report the laptop's exact physical location. Tracing programs include zTrace, CyberAngel and ComputracePlus.

Security experts also say that engraving your name on the computer is helpful. That will make it more difficult to fence. A thief might decide to take a pass.

Set a system password

Every road warrior should protect their laptop with a startup password. This way, a system password prompt will appear each time you start your computer before Windows even begins to load. It will prohibit any access to the computer at all. So, this is definitely not a password you want to forget!

To create a system password, you'll need to access your computer's setup utility (also known as CMOS BIOS settings, which stands for "complementary metal oxide semiconductor basic input/output system"). Doing this requires different actions for different computers.

Typically, however, if you press Delete, Esc or F1 as soon as you turn on your system, and before it begins to load Windows, you'll get the setup menu. If in doubt, check your computer's manual or search online at your system manufacturer's Web site.

Once you're into the setup utility, scroll through the options until you find a setting for "security," or it may even be labeled "password." Enter your desired password and make sure you press "save and exit" (usually F10, but this too varies by machine).

Consider laptop PC insurance

Finally, if your laptop is expensive, you might want to insure it. Some homeowners', renters' and business insurance policies don't cover computers, and if they do, they may be limited in the type of coverage.

But a few insurers, such as Safeware, specialize in insuring computers. You can get a quote through Safeware's Web site or through, an online directory of insurance companies.

Today's laptops are ripe targets for thieves. If you follow these basic guidelines along with some good common sense, you don't have to give yours up.

HMcS Computers