Q. 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
A. 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 high.
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?
Because 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 user names 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 requires a third-party program such as TrueCrypt (www.truecrypt.org).
Your primary goal with these steps is to make it difficult for thieves to search through your computer files before they pawn the machine or reuse it for other purposes.
Because 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 has been connected (via the IP address) should it ever be stolen.
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 way it works is 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 the general locale.
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. Some can even remotely “retrieve” those sensitive files as well.
You may not get your computer back, but you can minimize the chances your data will be stolen.
The list of programs available is long and includes LoJack for Laptops (www.absolute.com/products/lojackforlaptops), Absolute Software’s Computrace (www.absolute.com) and MyLaptopGPS (www.mylaptopgps.com).
There are even some free programs that require you to do all of the interacting with law enforcement like LocatePC (www.locatepc.com) and the University of Washington’s open source system called Adeona (http://adeona.cs.washington.edu/).
Ken Colburn is president of Data Doctors Computer Services and host of the “Computer Corner” radio show, which can be heard at www.datadoctors.com/radio. Readers may send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.