Tracking A Stolen Computer

If your computer is stolen, is there any way to track it down based on someone using it and downloading program updates, or some other method? – Richard

The fact that virtually every computer contains sensitive personal or business information has added to the computer theft problem for everyone.

What was once an easy item for thieves to sell for quick cash at a pawn shop is now also the target of sophisticated identity thieves, so the likelihood that you will have a computer stolen in your lifetime is getting pretty good.

When a computer is stolen, there are two primary concerns; the obvious loss of property and the not so obvious loss of proprietary information. How many of us really know exactly how much personal information is stored in all the nooks and crannies of our computers?

Since we know that the potential for identity theft from a stolen computer is high, taking steps to protect yourself in the event of a theft before it happens is extremely wise.

Before I get into the tracking options, here are a few basic steps everyone should consider (especially if you own a laptop):

  • Make sure you set a password in the computer’s operating system (Windows or MacOS). Laptop users may want to consider adding an additional password that is set at the hardware level in the “BIOS” of the computer as well.
  • Minimize or remove any automatically saved usernames and passwords, especially for e-mail programs which are the gateways to taking over your online identity.
  • Set a password on any documents or spreadsheets that may contain your personal information
  • Use encryption to scramble sensitive files, especially for business laptops. Encryption is built into some operating systems (Windows XP Pro, Windows Vista Ultimate, and MacOS X) or require a third party program such as TrueCrypt.

Your primary goal with these steps is to make it difficult to search through your computer files before they pawn it or reuse it for other purposes.

Since virtually every computer connects to the Internet these days, you can install special software on your computer that will allow you to determine where on the Internet it connects (via the IP address) should it ever be stolen.

In order for these programs to work, the thief must a) Not wipe out or replace the computer’s hard drive and b) Connect to the Internet with your stolen unit.

The basic overview of how these services work is that you install a program that has what equates to a tracking beam in it that can be monitored and once you report your computer stolen, the tracking system starts “listening” for your computer to “phone home.”

Once it gets a signal from your computer, which includes the IP address used to connect, they or you can report the information to law enforcement based on the location (an IP address along with a few other coordinates can be used to obtain a general local).

These systems are not perfect and how fast or effective local law enforcement will be with the information reported by the software varies widely.

One very cool option that several of the vendors offer is the ability to remotely “kill” all the sensitive files on your stolen computer the first time that it connects to the Internet and some can even remotely “retrieve” those sensitive files as well.

You may not get your computer back, but you can pro-actively minimize the chances that your stolen data does not end up in the hands of an identity thief.

The list of programs available are many, but include LoJack for Laptops, Absolute Software’s Computrace, MyLaptopGPS, and even some free programs (that require you to do all of the interacting with law enforcement) like LocatePC and the University of Washington’s Open Source system called Adeona.

Ken Colburn
President of Data Doctors Computer Services, Host of the award-winning Computer Corner radio show, and Author of Computer Q&A in the East Valley Tribune newspapers.

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  • Eric

    There is also GadgetTrak ( http://www.gadgettrak.com ), which not only tracks you laptop, but also allows you to remotely wipe data from it and use the built-in camera to capture images of the thief. GadgetTrak also provides theft recovery and data wipe software for mobile phones and other devices.

  • Paddy Driver

    Hi their is a new system now that allows you to register your laptop for a one time fee and you dont have to download or install anything. I registered with them after my cousin told me about it. Their scan all system that are brought into computer repair shops, Pond Shops etc looking for system that have been reported stolen and then return to owner. You can find out more about this at http://www.got-it.ie but i think it’s the best idea i have come across yet.