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How to recover your stolen laptop

What do you do if someone steals your computer and its precious data that comprises your work life?

Tracking services such as LoJack for laptops and GadgetTrak come in handy.

You install an application on your laptop, and if it is stolen, these services can help track down and try to recover your computer or at least disable it so the thief cannot access the contents of the hard drive.

Most of these services require a monthly or annual subscription fee, ranging from $20 to $60 a year.

For the budget conscious there are few free, open-source options for tracking a stolen laptop. Apart from the price tag, one reason you might want to use an open-source tracker over commercial product is that you can examine the code to ensure it is not doing anything shady with your private data, and compile it yourself.

How reliable and stable are these tracking services?

With a well established company, you can feel pretty sure it will be around in two years if your laptop is stolen. But can you have the same confidence in a free alternative?

While you can still download the LaptopLock tracking application, the site is rarely updated and one wonders whether it is functioning properly.

Currently, the two open-source laptop tracking services in standing are: Prey and Pombo.

Since Pombo works only with Linux, I will focus on Prey which supports Windows, Mac OS and Linux; it is useful to a much wider audience and also I have experience in using their services since 2008.

Not only does Prey look good and work well, it is in steady development by an active community that is improving and adding features to it.

On the downside, Prey does not have the resources to work with the police to recover your laptop, as many paid services do. Furthermore, it provides no way to physically delete files from the stolen computer, and the tracking software can be removed by savvy thieves.

In version 0.3.3, the Prey laptop recovery software runs in the background processes of your laptop.

It "awakes" at a specific interval;, goes online (if your laptop is not already connected to the Internet, Prey tries to connect to the nearest WI-FI access point) and checks in with a specified web address to see what you have ordered it to do.

If said address doesn't issue a command to the laptop (such as telling your computer that it is considered stolen), the Prey software returns to sleep and will wake up again at the next time interval.

What to do when your laptop is stolen?

If your laptop is stolen, you can use another computer to sign in to the Prey web site, mark it as missing, and follow its whereabouts through a control panel; assuming the thief takes your laptop online or the software manages to connect to a WI-FI access point.

Be aware that Prey and many other laptop recovery services whether free or paid is that the tracking programme itself can be stopped, removed or deleted if found by a tech savvy thief. Of course the programme will be useless if the thief reformat your laptop's hard drive.

This can somewhat be resolved by going into your laptop's BIOS settings and disabling the option for the computer to boot from USB device or network connections, and locking down access to the BIOS with a password.

Note: I say somewhat because the thief could simply remove the hard drive from your laptop, and access its contents by connecting it to another computer.

Some of the paid laptop recovery services are difficult to render unworkable because they are not written to your laptop's hard drive. For example, LoJack for Laptop's software resides in the BIOS of your laptop. Prey does not do this.

How it Works?

In Prey, interacting with your stolen laptop works in standalone mode or through a web control panel.

In Standalone mode, you get messages from your laptop by e-mail but setting up remote-control operation can be awkward.

Using a web control panel is easier to set up and run individual remote operations. Through this panel, you can flag your laptop missing. Then, if your laptop manages to connect to Internet, you can tell it to send you a report detailing the IP address it is connected to, command it to take a screenshot of the desktop and if your laptop has a camera, take a snap-shot to capture the image of the person using the computer. You can even send an instant message to the suspect to tell him you are watching him.

So is using Prey better than using nothing at all? Definitely. Still, it would not hurt to use a security cable to protect your laptop


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