10 things to do before you lose your laptop

Your laptop computer lets you to stay in touch and be productive regardless of where you are. But if you aren’t careful that portability can be your downfall.

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Credit: iStockphoto

Whether you’re in the office, at home, in school, or at coffee shops and hotels around the world, laptops are everywhere. The portable computer allows you to stay in touch and do productive work regardless of where you may be physically – especially when you factor in the extended battery life and cloud-based computing applications and services.

On the other hand, the sheer portability of the laptop also makes it vulnerable to unauthorized access or outright theft or lost. Gartner recently estimated that a laptop is lost every 53 seconds.

While nobody plans to lose a laptop, there are some things that you can do to reduce both the risk and the potential legal repercussions should your laptop ever be misplaced or stolen. As with most security measures, the best defense is a good offense. Here are 10 things to do before you lose your laptop.

password with auto lock

1. Set up a password with auto-lock.

The first step to protect your laptop would be to set a password to protect your device. While this does not protect you from hackers who can remove your laptop’s hard disk drive to access them directly, it can form a deterrent against non-tech thieves or opportunists with a few minutes’ access to pillage your data or install malware. Don’t forget to set the password to kick in after sleep and when the screen saver begins, too. 

2. Encrypt your hard disk drive.

The easiest way to ensure the data on your laptop is protected is to use a full disk encryption service such as FileVault on (Mac OS X) or BitLocker (Windows). BitLocker is available on the Ultimate and Enterprise version of Windows 7, and the Pro and Enterprise versions of Windows 8.1 and Windows 10.

Be sure to save the recovery key for the encrypted data in a safe place, which will be needed in the event that data recovery is required on your storage drive, or if your laptop motherboard ever suffers from a catastrophic failure.

3. Set up all your documents to sync.

Losing your laptop is always an unexpected event, and the biggest casualty is often locally stored work documents that are still works in progress, or files that aren’t stored elsewhere (such as your entire photo library that only exists on your laptop, for instance). Consider that the pain of losing that data or those files can sometimes outweigh that of losing the physical laptop itself, it’s imperative that all documents and files of note are properly synchronized to an alternative location.

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This can be easily achieved with one of the many cloud-based backup services, such as Dropbox, Box and OneDrive. You can also read up on how to create a robust backup strategy with cloud services – including both public and private clouds.

4. Backup your laptop.

Even if you have all of your files properly synchronized to a cloud-based service, you still should consider doing regular backups of your entire hard drive. This offers additional peace of mind that all of your data is safe, including commercially installed software, and documents that were inadvertently placed outside the synchronized folders. Moreover, a backup saves all configuration and settings too, which can also help you get back to work much faster.

Mac users have this built in, via Apple’s Time Machine service. PC users have options like Acronis True Image, which offers a “bare metal” restore capability that lets you restore everything onto a new laptop – even if it’s a different make and model altogether.

5. Switch to a cloud- or server-based email platform.

Despite the obvious appeal of a cloud- or server-based email platform such as Gmail, Outlook and Exchange, far too many users continue to adopt an approach that sees email messages downloaded via POP onto a single client device. The danger here is obvious: Emails could be irrecoverably lost should a laptop containing the critical data be stolen or misplaced.

The bottom line is cloud- and server-based email platforms boast much better reliability, and make it trivial to synchronize all emails across multiple devices.

6.  Make a note of registration codes for hard-to-find software.

Admittedly, the issue of lost registration codes for software that you can no longer find online is becoming increasingly rare due to a preference towards online software activation. But it can still happen. Be sure to check periodically for software that uses registration codes, then record them and save a copy of the software. Registration codes could be stored on a digital note taking service such as Evernote, while installation files can be stored on your usual cloud storage service.

7. Encrypt portable HDD, flash storage drives, too.

If you have a habit of storing your documents on a portable storage drive or USB-based flash drive, don’t forget to encrypt their contents, too. Since these gadgets are typically stored in the same bag as laptops, they’re just as susceptible to theft and loss. There are two main options here: you can use software encryption such as BitLocker To Go, or get an external storage drive that offers hardware-based encryption and authentication. Read more about how to secure USB drives and other portable devices.  

Proximo physical fob alarm security system

8. Set up additional security.

Nothing beats some additional physical security when it comes to protecting an expensive device like a laptop. The easiest approach here is probably by means of a Kensington lock to secure your laptop in the hotel room or at other semipublic locations.

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Though all locks can eventually be defeated, even a simple physical lock can go a long way towards making you a less-appealing target – and possibly sending the bad guys elsewhere instead. Alternatively, an alarm system such as the Proximo is a physical fob system that helps you find your items – and which can be configured to sound an alarm when tracked items go out of range.

9. Remember to include a ‘please return’ note.

For all the efforts to keep your data synchronized and physical security in place, don’t forget to include a simple note with information of how to return your laptop. This could be an office address, a contact number or an email address on the screensaver, or printed on a sticker attached to the bottom of your device.

This won’t work if your laptop is stolen, of course, but could go a long way toward helping a Good Samaritan return it in the event that you simply misplaced it.

10. Set it up for remote tracking, or wiping.

Finally, one way to facilitate the recovery of your laptop would be to install software like Prey or LoJack on your device. Depending on your service plan, and how you set it up, you may be able track the location of your stolen device, send a remote alarm or message, or even perform a remote wipe of the device.

Please note that you should never attempt to recover a stolen laptop by yourself, even if it turns out to be nearby. Instead, contact police or security. Even if recovery isn’t possible, being notified of a successful remote wipe would at least give you some peace of mind that your data was not compromised.

This story, "10 things to do before you lose your laptop" was originally published by CIO.