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Warding Off Laptop Lifters

Take a moment to reflect on the number of hours you spend with your laptop and the number of intimate details about your life that you have shared with it, and you realize that this electronic confidante really is among your most prized possessions.

If someone steals your laptop, you will suffer. Count the ways:

  • If it's your own personal laptop: Of course, you lose your machine, which is expensive to replace. But the data on the laptop is probably worth much more. If you're like many people, you keep on the machine all your financial information (bank account numbers, bank statements, credit and debit card numbers, stock and mutual fund information, tax information, your passwords for accessing your financial accounts online, your long-distance calling card number — maybe even your Social Security number). If you're like many others, you also keep information about your health and health insurance and other sensitive personal information on the machine.
  • If it's the company's laptop: You probably keep on your laptop all that personal information plus loads of valuable insider information about your company, including trade secrets, corporate intranet passwords, business plans, financial information, proposals, and e-mail. Do you really want to be responsible for letting all that information slip into a competitor's hands? In one case in Silicon Valley, the contents of a stolen corporate laptop theft were valued at more than a billion dollars.
  • Restoration comedy — or nightmare? Ask anyone who has ever had a laptop stolen and that person will tell you that the worst part is rebuilding your digital life without it — especially if you weren't in the habit of backing up your data regularly. Reconfiguring a new machine with the right hardware and software and settings and passwords eats up hours and hours of your life. Meanwhile, a stolen laptop has a way of haunting you for years to come — because the time will come when you think, "Where did I put that file?" You'll get a sinking feeling down deep in your stomach when you realize that no matter how desperately you need that file right now, it's gone, gone, gone.

Here's the laptop golden rule:When you're in a public place, don't ever let your laptop out of your sight — not even when you think you're in the safest public place in the world. Here's the laptop golden rule at the airport: You should always hand your laptop to security personnel for a "hand check" rather than let it ride on the luggage conveyor belt. If the security folks balk, make sure that your laptop is the last bag you put on the conveyor to reduce the time it spends on the other side unattended. And don't ever check your laptop as luggage — because if the thieves don't get it, the luggage-handling equipment will.

Here are some laptop essentials:

  • Use a bag that's not so obvious. When your company assigned your laptop to you, it probably came in one of those black nylon bags that everyone else in corporate America carries a laptop in. That's a real mistake because using that bag telegraphs to the whole wide world that you have a laptop just waiting to be heisted.
  • Use a bag that's so, so obvious: Regardless of what kind of bag you carry your laptop in, do something so that you can quickly pick it out in a crowd. Put a company sticker on the side of the bag or tie a bright piece of yarn around the handle. Why? If someone walks off with the case, you can quickly identify it and know for certain that it's yours, and you can take off after the person (while also yelling for the cops).
  • Use a bag with a strap. You can throw the strap over your shoulder when standing and walking or drape it over your knee or wrap it around your foot while sitting.
  • Write down the serial number at home or at the office or both. You can usually find the number on the bottom of your machine. Police officers, insurance employees, and who knows who else will want this number. This advice may seem obvious, folks, but if the only place you record the serial number is on your laptop, it doesn't really do you much good if the laptop's stolen, does it?

Here are a couple of smart, but optional, options:

  • Deface the machine: One security expert suggests that having the machine's serial number engraved not just on the underside of the laptop but in big, humongous type on the outside of your machine is sort of like securing your car by putting The Club on your steering wheel: Its large and hideous presence may just scare off a potential thief because it's permanent and makes the machine much easier to identify.
  • Use a lock and an alarm to discourage theft.

First, look on the back and sides of your laptop for a small padlock icon alongside a small slit in the plastic. If you find this security slot (a standard feature on most laptops today), you can quickly and easily attach a security lock and then wrap the cable around a fixed object. Laptop locks can be found online and at most computer and office supply stores.

Alarms come in many flavors. Some attach directly to your laptop or bag, others use cables, and most have motion-sensitive alarms. You can shop around, or you can make life easy and buy the Targus Defcon1, which can be attached directly to your bag or machine. It also comes with a built-in retractable cable. In addition to its motion-sensitive alarm, the DefCon1 also goes off if someone tampers with the cable. Finally, you want to get an alarm with lots of flashing lights so that it scares thieves away early, before they have even had a chance to think twice about trying to steal your machine.

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