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Is Your Laptop a Moving Target for Theft?

August 24, 1998|LAWRENCE J. MAGID

I carry a laptop PC with me almost everywhere I go, but frankly, I worry that it will someday be lost, stolen or damaged. And I have reason to be concerned.

In 1997, 309,000 laptop computers were stolen or lost, according to a study by Safeware Insurance Agency (, which specializes in personal computer insurance. An additional 404,000 were damaged in accidents. And according to Brian Haase, Safeware's senior account manager, losses totaled more than $1.5 billion. While thefts of desktop PCs were down 31% from the year before, laptop theft and accidental damage climbed 17%.

Laptop theft is becoming a serious problem, according to Det. Steve Howe of the Los Angeles Police Department's Burglary and Auto Theft division. Laptops are often stolen from offices, according to Howe, who advises employees to "take them or lock them up" when they are away from their desks. Howe also advises laptop owners to engrave identifying information on a section of the case (such as the back of the screen) that can't be removed.

Another option is to secure it with a cable. Most notebook and laptop PCs have a security slot built into the machine. Kensington ( and other companies offer security cables that you can use to lock the laptop to a table or desk.

Travelers are particularly vulnerable, especially in and around airports. Most of thefts at Los Angeles International Airport occur because the property is left unattended, said Sgt. Vince Garcia of the Los Angeles Airport Police Crime Suppression Unit. "Passengers are taking care of business at the ticket counter or at their destination. Keeping track of their property is the second thing on their mind."

Airport security checkpoints are one of the danger spots for travelers with laptops. Thieves, who often work in pairs, have been known to lift laptops as they emerge from the scanner. One accomplice may step in front of the intended victim or create a distraction after the traveler puts his bags down and, by the time the victim walks through the metal detector, the PC is gone. "People get a false sense of security at the checkpoints because there are plenty of security people around," Garcia said. "But they're not there to protect property. Their No. 1 goal is to check for weapons."

If you're traveling with others, Garcia recommends that you have one person go through first and keep an eye on the luggage as it goes through the scanner. If you're by yourself, he recommends that you delay putting your bag on the ramp until you are just about to enter the metal detector. I generally travel alone and I try to keep an eye on my case as it goes through the scanner, but that isn't always possible.

Airline lounges are another frequent theft area, according to Garcia. People put their notebook PCs in closets or leave them unattended when they leave to get a snack or go to the bathroom.

Garcia also cautions travelers to be careful when using a luggage cart. A thief may try to distract you by asking you a question or bumping into you and grabbing your laptop when you're not paying attention.

One trick is for thieves to drop money on the ground, hoping that the good Samaritan laptop owner will chase them down to return the money. But, while one thief is thanking the person for returning the cash, an accomplice is walking away with the computer.

Sgt. Robert Serpico of the San Jose Airport Police warns travelers to be careful while they're in restrooms. "If you set your bag down when you're in a stall," he said, "someone in the next stall can reach under the divider and grab your briefcase." You not only can't see that person, but by the time you're able to get up and leave the stall, the crook will be gone. Serpico recommends using the stall closest to the wall and putting your laptop on the wall side. Don't hang it on the door because someone can reach over and grab it.

Several experts suggest using a carrying case that doesn't look like a computer bag. Most people carry a leather or cloth bag made for a laptop, but a backpack or other nondescript case makes a less obvious target. I carry my laptop in an Eagle Creek Companion ($65) briefcase that converts into a backpack. By carrying it on my back, I don't have to put the PC down, plus it doesn't look like a computer bag.

Regardless of precautions, there is always the chance that your laptop will be lost, stolen or damaged on a trip. For that reason, you should back up your data regularly. If you work in an office with a local area network, consider getting an ethernet card for your laptop so you can back it up to desktop PCs on the network. Otherwise, get a Zip drive, tape backup or some other backup system, and always back up before you leave. If your data include trade secrets or confidential information, you should consider protecting your privacy with an encryption program, such as Norton Your Eyes Only ($80) from Symantec or PGP for Windows or Mac, which you can download at


Lawrence J. Magid can be reached at His Web page is at or keyword LarryMagid on AOL.

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