Secure Your PC From Thieves

SAN FRANCISCO (07/26/2000) - He landed on both feet: I could see his footprints on the bathroom floor. The sheriff said the burglar was a pro, looking only for jewelry and cash. And my depreciating-as-we-speak PC? Fortunately, it wasn't touched.

That was three years ago, and we haven't been hit since. But I haven't let my guard down. According to the FBI, 319,000 laptops were stolen in 1999--and you can bet that few of them were recovered. As my contribution to community policing, I'll share some strategies for preventing your PC from leaving the office, as well as a sneaky way to recover the machine if it does disappear.

Imagine an unsavory character (and not one of those ASCII types) ripping off your office PC or notebook with dozens of sensitive files on it (which, we'll assume, you've faithfully backed up). My fantasy would be to set off a small charge of TNT remotely as the guy boots up. A legal alternative? Install Absolute Software Corp.'s CompuTrace, a crafty undercover utility that lets your kidnapped PC call the cops.

Here's how it works. The product hides a program on your system that calls CompuTrace's server every few days to check in. If your computer gets stolen, just alert CompuTrace. Your PC's modem (if it has one) silently calls CompuTrace when the thief goes online, and the program supplies the company with your computer's unique ID as well as the phone number it's calling from.

(Not to worry: Caller ID blocking doesn't work with CompuTrace's phone number.) Neat, eh?

Guess Who's Calling?

Computrace's 24-hour recovery line immediately contacts the police in the area your PC's calling from and provides them with details about the theft. The company also contacts you by e-mail (not really helpful, though, if your only PC's in the hands of the thief), fax, and voice. CompuTrace claims a 90 percent recovery rate. The cost is $50 for the software and a one-year subscription, and $50 a year thereafter for the service.

I know what you're thinking: A smart thief can simply disable the CompuTrace program. Nope. Nothing pops up on the screen to give away the ball game. And CompuTrace is even designed to survive hard-drive reformatting. (The secret, though, might be revealed to experienced users with a knack for word puzzles, especially with a careful look at this sentence.)PC LockdownFeeling like a Luddite and don't want more technology? Use brute force instead.

I've secured all my desktop equipment with an assortment of cables. I recommend Secure-it's $35 Kablit II kit: It comes with a 10-foot cable, assorted fasteners, and a lock. The cable attaches to the PC and peripherals, which you then fasten with strong adhesive to an immovable object--say, the leg of a desk or a senior editor. For extra security, I loop the cable through a hole drilled into the back of my desk. To steal my PC, the thief would either have to take the whole desk or saw a big chunk out of it. It's not Fort Knox, but thieves are in a hurry and usually take only what's easy to steal. So why not make their job a little harder?

If your business has a server to protect, or if you're feeling exceptionally paranoid, find comfort with an Anchor Pad Universal Entrapment setup. Fasten a heavy-duty adhesive mat to your desk, then attach your PC to a locking plate, which secures the mat with pick-resistant locks. A buddy of mine had a dozen PCs stolen from his business--a loss that Anchor Pads could probably have prevented.

Mia Notebooks

Airports are notorious for notebook thefts, so to protect my laptop, I use a Targus Defcon 1 motion detection alarm. It looks like a bicycle cable and lock.

I stick the gizmo's cable into my notebook's security lock slot. If someone cuts the cable (or if I set the Defcon to go off when it detects motion), a 110-decibel alarm wails. For $50, it's a cheap way to put eyes in the back of my head.

Do yourself a favor. Secure your PC before you become another unfortunate FBI crime statistic.

According to the FBI, 319,000 laptops were stolen in 1999.

PC World Contributing Editor Steve Bass is president of the Pasadena IBM Users Group. You can reach him at

Anchor Pad Universal Entrapment

$145; Anchor Pad Int'l; 800/626-2467; www.anchorpad.comCompuTrace$50 per year; Absolute Software;800/220-0733; www.computrace.comKablit II$35; Secure-it; 800/451-7592; Defcon 1$50; Targus; 800/950-5122;

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