How to Stop a Laptop Thief
Laptop theft puts your data at risk. Here are your defensive options.
July 01, 2004 — CSO — Daniel Robinson looked like just another job candidate. With his dark gray suit, wingtips, no-nonsense red tie and neatly trimmed hair, he was so utterly unremarkable that, when he asked the receptionist if he might slip into a restricted area of the building to use the bathroom, she let him in without thinking twice. Only minutes later, a brand-new laptop—and not coincidentally, Robinson—had vanished.
This story is a made-up one for our purposes, but the crime is real enough. And even though the 2003 annual CSI/FBI computer crime and security survey showed a drop in the number of companies reporting stolen laptops, more than half of respondents in the past several years reported that they had been victimized.
And the real anecdotes are pervasive: A large insurer had two of its laptops stolen from a locked car. They contained data on about 200,000 customers, who then had to be informed that they were at risk of identity theft. At a banking giant, a laptop containing data on thousands of the bank's mortgage customers was stolen from a rental car's trunk when two employees traveling together stopped at a convenience store and left the car unlocked with the keys in the ignition. In another incident, the Australian government revealed that over the past several years it lost more than 1,000 laptops, 537 of those from its department of defense. And police in Delaware and Pennsylvania joined forces to bust a fencing operation that specialized in car break-ins. Police raided the ringleader's business and confiscated 35 stolen laptops and 20 PDAs.
Safeware, a computer insurance provider, estimates that in 2002, U.S. PC owners filed 620,000 claims for computer thefts—most of them for stolen laptops. And those numbers only promise to increase. IDC predicts that, by 2008, 50 percent of the PCs in the United States will be laptops (up from 29 percent in 2004), which means there'll be plenty of targets out there. Many PC owners seem oblivious to the risks surrounding their equipment; a good number of thefts occur because people carelessly leave their computers in places where they are likely to be stolen.
The dollar amount of such losses isn't easily determined. The CSI/FBI survey pegs losses by U.S. companies from laptop theft in 2003 at $6.8 million, but that doesn't necessarily include the value of the data lost. Gartner estimates that a single stolen laptop can cost a company more than $6,000 for hardware, software, restoring data (assuming it was backed up in the first place) and user downtime. Gartner analyst Leslie Fiering notes that this number doesn't account for the cost of any data lost or exposed.