Laptop theft occurs more often than people would like to think. Here is what you should do if you lose your computer and all the data on it.
A laptop is stolen every 12 seconds, meaning one more will be taken by the time you finish reading this sentence. Here's what to do if that stolen laptop is yours. And if you're thinking you can rest easy and skip this article because you and your employees mostly keep your laptops at home, according to a December 2010 Ponemon Institute study, the majority of laptops (43 percent) go missing off-site in employee homes.
1. Change Your Passwords
First things first: Do not stop, do not pass go (or cry or order too many stiff drinks) - go directly to change your network username and passwords. The account you use to login to your office network needs to be changed first. If you have an IT department, let them know so they can keep an eye out for repeated authorization failures in your username.
You'll also want to change information for all personal accounts you may have accessed: email, credit cards, bank accounts, web sites, airlines - anything web based for which you have a username and password. Access to these accounts may be available through web browser cache and cookies, so changing the password should prevent this type of access.
In the future, think about storing passwords and other sensitive information in a storage vault app. KeePass - a free open-source app - is easy to use and has encryption. Ditto for TrueCrypt, which is also a free open-source tool. It can be used for Windows, Mac and Linux. You'll likely need some help using it if you're not particularly computer savvy but it does have a tutorial for how to use it. Most computers running Windows XP will come with a built-in encryption system that owners can access. If you have Microsoft's Vista Business edition or Windows 7, you'll have BitLocker.
A December 2010 Ponemon Institute survey found that two-thirds of companies don't take advantage of even basic security practices for their laptops. "While organizations may be aware of the lost laptop problem, it became clear as we conducted our research that most organizations, including workers, IT and CFOs, do not fully understand the adverse affect it can have on their bottom line. If they did, they'd be much more diligent in protecting their laptop fleets," said Larry Ponemon, the Ponemon Institute's chairman and founder.
2. Check the Lost-and-Found
Don't automatically assume your laptop is gone for good - at least make inquiries at the Starbucks or airport or wherever it is you left it unattended. Only a third of laptops turned in to airport lost-and-found departments are reclaimed. How much would you kick yourself if one of those sitting around is yours? If the laptop was indeed stolen, request a police report. You'll need it for your insurance. (You do have insurance, don't you?) Keep an eye on Craigslist, eBay, and local pawn shops. There's a reason there are entire websites (including dumbcriminals.com) devoted to, erm, dumb criminals. This is also where knowing your laptop serial number comes in handy. Rich Castagna, editorial director of Tech Target's Storage Media Group says, "The most important thing to do when you lose your computer is what you did before you lost it." If you don't know yours and happen to be reading this article purely out of curiosity, go find your serial number now and store it somewhere that is not your laptop.
3. Make Clients Aware
Notify clients if they're affected. If you were storing any access to their sites or personal information, you need to let them know so they, too, can change passwords.
4. Utilize Computer Tracking
If you don't already have laptop tracking software, consider contacting MyLaptopGPS, which offers free help even for non-customers. For actual customers, the company claims a 99.6 percent success rate and a 300 percent guarantee, according to chief technology officer Dan Yost. Prices start at $9.95 per month for one computer; $49.95 covers five laptops. There are several laptop tracking services you can try.
If you're not convinced of the value of laptop tracking, look no further than a 2009 Ponemon Institute study, which found that the average cost of a laptop is $49,246, 80 percent of which is the value of the data. A 2003 Computer Security Institute/FBI Computer Crime and Security Survey put the value much higher - at $250,000. And yours may well be worth more than that. Consider the case of hip hop artist Ryan Leslie, who in October took to YouTube and Twitter to offer $1 million for the return of his MacBook, which contained irreplaceable intellectual property. (He didn't get it back.)
"Any business with people onthe go -- sales force, field agents, service teams --depends on laptop computing. Laptops mobilize productivity. Losing a laptop crushes productivity. Mobile employees lose their ability to work effectively, IT personnel spend time replacing and reconfiguring equipment, and customers wait for you to get back up to speed. But these are still just lightweight costs," says Yost.
You may also want to download Prey, a free app that sends timed reports to your email with a bunch of information about your laptop's whereabouts. This includes the general status of the computer, a list of running programs and active connections, fully-detailed network and wifi information, a screenshot of the running desktop and - in case your laptop has an integrated webcam - a picture of the thief.
5. Invest in an Online Backup Service
Online--or cloud--backup services not only offer the easiest way to automatically back up your laptop's data, they also provide the added safety of storing those backups offsite so the data is available at any time from anywhere. All you have to do is install the software, which then keeps track of when you create or modify files and saves a copy of the update. There are hundreds of services to choose from, but Castagna recommends EMC's MozyPro, Carbonite Pro and Seagate's i365 EVault to help smaller companies with limited IT resources protect their data appropriately. Whatever service you choose, he advises making sure you read and understand your options for restoring your data - some companies charge for transmitting data, and if you need to restore it all at once, the process can be both time-consuming (depending on your connection speed) and expensive. Ask if the service provides alternatives, like FedExing you a disk.
Inc. contributing editor COURTNEY RUBIN was for five years a London-based staff writer for People magazine. Rubin, a former senior writer for Washingtonian magazine, has written for the New York Times magazine, Time, Marie Claire, and other publications. She is the author of The Weight-Loss Diaries.