Say you take your laptop to the coffee shop with you. You walk away to get your drink, and when you turn around it’s gone. This happens all the time, opportunistic thieves see an untethered laptop and just grab and run. Other times, they’ll break in to a car and steal the contents, including your computer. According to one study, one in ten laptops will ultimately be stolen. The thief now has not just your laptop, but your data – and increasingly often, they’re using it to get to your identity.
nhinkle included some tips on preventing laptop theft in his series on college computing. In this article I’ll present some tools that can help you get a stolen laptop back.
The idea of laptop tracking software is very simple: when your laptop has been stolen, the tracking program will send you information to help you find it. Although it sounds simple, there’s a real problem with these technologies. Since they run as software, they only work as long as the software is installed and has a chance to execute. Unfortunately, good thieves are going to replace the laptop’s operating system first thing after stealing it, wiping away your tracking system. So, with the sole exception of LoJack’s BIOS support on limited models, laptop tracking solutions are only really suitable for the case where the thief will turn the laptop on and leave it on for a while. You can, of course, maximize your chances of recovery by not setting a password, but that brings all kinds of security concerns with it.
Fortunately, thieves are rarely good thieves, and at least anecdotal evidence suggests that it may be fairly common for laptop thieves to use a tool to reset the password on user accounts and then use the computer for a while. That time gives your laptop a chance to call home, if you’ve set up some kind of tracking solution. Fortunately, the choice is easy: there are really only a few strong contenders in the laptop tracking market. I’ll start by discussing the Lexus of tracking systems – or should I say the Crown Victoria, because this brand is best known for their car tracking system popular with police cruisers:
LoJack for laptops is a product of Absolute Software, who license the brand from the company we know for making the automotive anti-theft solution. LoJack is the best known laptop tracking service, and you can see why they’re so popular amongst businesses. LoJack provides a team of recovery specialists that work with law enforcement to retrieve the laptop, so you don’t need to worry about it. While you’re waiting for them to track it down, they can lock the laptop. Finally, if they can’t retrieve the computer, they can remotely erase the hard drive to make sure no sensitive information falls in to the wrong hands.
Of course, LoJack doesn’t come cheap. “Standard Edition” costs US$39.99 for two years, or US$89.99 for four years. Standard edition, though, does not include any location-detection system, a rather odd limitation that stops it from competing even with free options. You’d really have to spring for “Premium Edition”, US$59.99 for 2 years or US$99.99 for 4 years, which is capable of WiFi network-based location (this estimates the physical location of the laptop by comparing the wifi networks around it to a database of known locations), and comes with a $1000 guarantee that the laptop will be recovered or data will be secured.
The LoJack recovery team apparently has a pretty good track record with getting laptops back, and the fact that their team of experts will work with the police for you makes it a very tempting service – you don’t need to worry about actually using the software yourself.
There’s a very unique advantage to LoJack, too: Some laptops (including most Dell models) feature BIOS-level support for LoJack. This means that even if the thief erases the hard drive, whenever the machine is on the BIOS itself will attempt to contact the LoJack reporting service. This makes LoJack far more effective against knowledgeable thiefs, if your laptop has hardware support.
The $30/year price tag on LoJack is on the high end, especially compared to free solutions. Luckily, the second most popular laptop tracking system is one of those free choices.
Prey is an open-source software client that connects to a web system produced by Fork, Ltd. Prey is available for Windows, OS X, and Linux (there’s even an Android version), and the best part is that its basic service is completely free. The small Prey client software will check with the Prey web service every ten to sixty minutes (you can change this setting) to see whether or not it has been stolen. If you have reported it as stolen through your web control panel, it will activate “modules” that take actions like determining the computer’s location via nearby wi-fi networks (which can be very accurate), taking screenshots, and even taking photos with the webcam.
For US$5 per month for three devices (that’s twice as much as LoJack Premium Edition), Prey Premium adds push-based activation, giving you an instant response to your stolen signal (unlike the basic service, where you may need to wait up to ten minutes), constant reports from the device even when it’s not reported as stolen, and a higher level of security with SSL-encrypted reporting.
Prey’s free service is an excellent contender, it feels even more feature-rich than LoJack. The maximum report frequency of ten minutes is somewhat limiting, though, and the lack of regular reports when a device isn’t in “stolen” mode makes you wonder if it’s really set up properly. The premium service fixes these issues, but if I were going to spend the $60/year, I would rather go with LoJack because of their much longer proven record (and spend the saved $30 on beer, amirite?). Nonetheless, if you’re looking for something free, Prey is the clear choice. There’s really no excuse not to have it set up on your laptop.
What if you’re looking for some pro-level protection at a reasonable price? Skip a few meals and you can afford the less known but up-and-coming tracking service, GadgetTrak.
GadgetTrak boasts a featureset that’s very similar to Prey’s: it uses WiFi to locate the computer and triggers the webcam to take photos of the thief. It uses an active communications system similar to LoJack so you know that it’s set up properly and you get a quick response. GadgetTrak doesn’t provide the professional recovery service that LoJack does, but they do offer a set of web services that will help you work with law enforcement (if you live in the jurisdiction of certain major police departments, you can even file a theft report right through their web interface). The great thing about GadgetTrak is the price, just $19.95 per year.
With the lowest price I’ve seen for a paid service that includes geographic location, GadgetTrak is a good choice for people on a budget. Their wallet-friendly rate still covers accurate WiFi-based location and webcam capture, basically all you can do to catch a crook.
The Bottom Line
Let’s take a look at how the three services stack up with a comparison table:
Bottom line, I would recommend Prey’s free service, GadgetTrak, or LoJack Premium depending on how much you can spend. Considering the difference between GadgetTrak and LoJack is only $10 per year, it’s all or nothing: if you don’t want to pay, install Prey, there’s really no excuse not to. If you really care about your laptop, though, spring for LoJack Premium protection.
When your laptop disappears, you can be just a bit more confident knowing that tracking software can help you get it back. If you have LoJack Premium, a team of professionals will help you out. If you have Prey installed, at least you might have some good leads to give to the police.
Whether or not you use a tracking program, there’s a few easy steps you should always take to protect yourself from theft:
- Record the make, model, and serial number of your computers and other electronics. Knowing the serial numbers makes it much more likely that they will be returned to you should the police find them.
- Mark your property in a way that is difficult to remove. Buy or borrow an engraving pen and mark your name and contact information somewhere obvious and somewhere hidden (like inside of a cover panel). This makes it more difficult to sell and thus less appealing to thieves, and the hidden information can serve as valuable proof of ownership should the police find it.
- Consider investing in an anti-theft marking kit: a $25 STOP security plate kit includes a strong serialized metal label that irreversibly etches “STOLEN PROPERTY” on to the surface under it. This makes it very difficult for a thief to sell your laptop. Some organizations provide these kits to their employees and students at the significant volume discount prices, so ask your IT or security department if this is possible.
- If something of yours is stolen, report it to the police immediately, and provide as much information as possible. In urban areas electronics are often seized in drug busts, and you have a much better chance of being reunited with your stuff if the police have a record that it’s missing and belongs to you.