Protect and track a laptop

Scene of the crime Protect and track a laptop –  last week, in this beautiful city we had a laptop stolen from our truck: not only were we stupid enough to leave the door open and unguarded for, like, 20 seconds – stupid enough to have been lulled into a false sense of security in a parking lot that should have been patrolled by the police – we now feel extra stupid because it is only now that we have been googling ‘how to track a stolen laptop’ and discovering all the kinds of software and services out there that can be installed on a machine  (BEFORE it goes missing) to dramatically increase the odds of recovery. I have to say that we are slightly miffed about this: we have been reading a ton of travel blogs and overlanding websites, searching for information about crossing the Darien Gap; how to get a dog into South Korea; where to camp for free in California and Wi-Fi hot-spots in Mexico. You know all that boring crap. NOT ONCE did I come across a report about protecting your laptop with software that lets you capture images of the thieves and their flippin’ facebook profiles… Why? I don’t know – too brain-dead to look closely, I guess – that’s the way I feel right now – but the info IS out there: I found it – after the event. Arrrgggghhhh. Why didn’t anyone tell us before?

You know, we all have computers; every single overlanding crew I have met has at least one – and every goddamn thief out there knows this when they see a foreign vehicle parked up… So, some advice on how to protect your traveling laptop and how to get it back if it’s stolen:

  1. Software solutions: Prey is free to set up and use (you can pay $5 to get a better service once your device is stolen). It works like this: you download and install some software and then set up an online account. Basically the software remains hidden on your computer (tablet or smartphone) and regularly sends information about how your computer is being used to a server somewhere. This means that you can get images from your webcam of the thief sitting in front of your stolen laptop, screen-grabs of the websites they are using and information about where they are. You can even send messages to them and activate a police siren noise. We so want to see a picture of the low-life using our laptop and activate pop-ups that say they will rot in hell if they don’t hand it in to the cops. It’s not a perfect system: the thief needs to log on for a start and you still need to do some investigation to figure out how to get the machine back of course. And, of course, if they reformat everything then the tracking software is gone. But read this to understand the joys of this simple and free service – the story of one guy recovering his computer – you’ll be in stitches (even if you wish, like us, that we were as clever as him).
  2. Deeper tracking solutions: There are other, more professional services out there that will write the tracking software into the hardware on your computer and they will initiate investigations on your behalf conducted by ex-law enforcement personnel. They recover (they say) 75% of lost equipment and can remotely brick the rest so that no one can use your stolen laptop ever again.
  3. Disguise your machine: design a laptop sticker that makes it look like a road atlas or cookbook or something. OK, you should be hiding your precious equipment whenever you’re not using it but there will always be a time when you’re in a hurry and you forget to stash it away (at the exact time when you forget to close the door for 20 seconds, at the exact time when your normally patrolled parking lot has no police anywhere to be seen…).
  4. Decoy: Have one useless, broken but shiny silver laptop or camera somewhere in your truck, on view to a thief in a hurry who might only have the time to grab just one of your possessions – make sure he grabs the crap one.
  5. Record all your serial numbers and MAC addresses; take photographs of your equipment – especially secret identifying marks – and upload the lot to your email account. The cops might recover your stolen goods months after they were stolen, years after you have returned home: give them every chance to return it all to you. A MAC address is a unique identifying code that every laptop has: it gets passed onto the router when the machine goes online. If you are using the same Wi-Fi connection, you’ll be able to ‘see’ your laptop: Not incredibly helpful but we’re hoping that because here in Panama City there is a city-wide free Wi-Fi service (‘Internet Para Todos’), the authorities can see whenever our stolen laptop accesses that network…
  6. If the worse happens, look for your machine in the markets and pawn shops of the nearest big city. Check the local second-hand buy-and sell websites. Once, many moons ago, my van was broken into in Rome and a camera went missing. The police said forget about it but a few days later we spotted the thing in the flea-market and got it back. Miracles DO happen – wish us luck as we sweat ourselves out on the hunt around the dodgy parts of Panama City: because we FAILED to do any of the above points, this is our only chance…
Watch out for thieves when using your laptop in public...
Watch out for thieves when using your laptop in public...

For some reason, we still love Panama City. Kind of. Hell, I would still be more worried about robbery in my hometown of London, UK. I suppose we’re lucky that there was no violence involved, that they just took the laptop,  that we didn’t lose anything more than a handful of photos because we back everything up regularly and we’re confident that the thief has no access to secret, confidential information because we keep all that stuff on an encrypted cloud somewhere. Back-ups and clouds are things everyone should be doing anyway since your machine could fail for any number of reasons. But I would like to repeat two points: (a) we are kicking ourselves for our stupidity and (b) take a long, serious look at those services mentioned above: protect your traveling laptop – track your stolen laptop.




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