How Not To Get Your Laptop Stolen (And How To Protect Yourself If It Does)

Millions of laptops are stolen from travelers each year. (OK, I made that up, but it does happen a lot.) Or at least that’s what the notebook security companies want you to believe! (Actually, no, notebooks do get stolen quite often from people traveling.)

People are going to swipe laptops no matter what, but there are a handful of steps you can take (and products you can buy!) to encourage ne’er-do-wells to lift some other sucker’s property instead of yours.

The fact is, more and more notebooks are being taken not for the value of the hardware, but the contents of the hard drive. So for starters, take advantage of what security options your OS offers you. FileVault on Mac OS X, for example, lets you encrypt everything on your hard drive and set up a master password for permission to view it. (You can set it up under System Preferences > Security). Windows XP and Vista let you encrypt individual files and folders. All you need to do is right click what you want encrypted, select Properties, then the General tab, Advanced and check the “Encrypt contents to secure data” box. It likely won’t stop hard-core cyber thieves from getting at your data, but it’s something, and something is better than nothing.

If you walk around with the credit histories of your friends and family, you’ll likely want to go a step further with the encryption with something like Steganos Safe 2007 ($49.95). It’s loaded with encryption options and even lets you turn a USB thumb drive or your iPod into a key for unlocking your drive.

Next, tag your tech. This goes for every mobile device you have, not just your laptop. Even if you’re one of those people not planning on having your stuff stolen, you should consider tagging your merchandise in case you leave it in a cab or at a restaurant. Check out options such as StuffBak and DataDot. Plus, products like these generally force you to write down your notebook’s model and serial numbers. At the very least, leave a label with some contact info inside the battery compartment.

Finally, install tracking software like Absolute Software’s Lojack for Laptops or CyberAngel Security. That way, if your notebook is stolen, there’s a very good chance it can be recovered.
Also, if you’re walking around with really sensitive files, consider using TrendMicro’s TrendSecure Remote File Lock software. It lets you remotely lock down any files located within a specific folder on your laptop.

Now for the common sense stuff:

  1. Password protect your laptop. It’s not as good as encryption and password protection, but it’ll stop anyone looking to grab files quickly off your notebook.
  2. Don’t keep your notebook on the ground and if you do, keep it between your legs or, if it’s in a bag, wrap the strap around a table or chair leg.
  3. Use a laptop bag. I’ve seen article after article recommending not using a laptop bag, and what they really mean is don’t use one that screams “laptop bag.” You still want a bag that has protection and padding, something designed to hold a laptop, but there are plenty of them on the market that look more like standard briefcases than “laptop” bags.
  4. What’s more important than how your bag looks, is that when the laptop is not in use, keep it out of sight. Put it back in its bag. Don’t leave it on a car seat; slip it under the seat or stick it in your trunk. Hell, throw a jacket on top of it if nothing else.
  5. Before you travel, back up any data living on your notebook you’d be hard pressed to replace or live without.
  6. Buy a lock. Seriously people, we’re talking about a $10 investment for what could be a notebook worth a couple thousand dollars, not to mention quite possibly your job and legal fees. It’s called a deterrent and is the difference between someone snatching your notebook or the person’s sitting across from you that’s not locked.
  7. Keep your eyes on your laptop. On my recent return trip home from Las Vegas, I counted eight laptops I could’ve walked off with while waiting for my flight. If you get up to go talk to the gate attendant, take your stuff with you, and definitely don’t turn your back on it. If you think the people around you are going to be paying attention, you’re wrong.

This article is part of our series on Travel For Geeks.