Imagine yourself sitting in the stall of an airport bathroom. You're traveling on business, so you have your laptop with you. You've put it on the floor, and you've been keeping an eye on it. Suddenly a hand darts out from under the partition separating your stall from the next and whisks your laptop away. Funny? Not if it happens to you.
These days, businesspeople keep everything from addresses to corporate secrets on their laptops. Losing a laptop is like losing part of your brain, not to mention a couple thousand dollars' worth of hardware. Some estimates put the number of laptops stolen each year at more than 200,000, and that number doesn't include thefts that go unreported. In fact, businesspeople are easy targets because crooks know they usually don't report thefts.
But if you're a laptop-toting traveler, don't despair. According to Kevin Coffey, a Los Angeles Police Department detective sergeant and founder of Corporate Travel Safety in Canoga Park, Calif., keeping your laptop safe is easy if you follow some basic guidelines. Coffey travels all over the country presenting business-traveler safety seminars. He also works undercover in airports, busting luggage and laptop thieves. His tips:
Keep your laptop with you. You know about the airport "law of proximity," right? It's the old can-you-watch-my-stuff-while-I-get-a-drink trust that we put in people who, because they're sitting next to us, seem less threatening than the other strangers in the airport. That law is bogus. Never leave your laptop behind -- whether to go throw something away or to grab a hot dog for the trip. Thieves are everywhere and often look just as businesslike and trustworthy as you do.
Don't fall for the "distraction technique." Stealing laptops is big business. Thieves often work in teams and develop elaborate schemes to catch a business traveler off guard. One common trick is for a thief to use your name and pretend to be an old acquaintance. (The thief can easily read your name off a luggage tag.) "Hey, John," he says, "remember me?" As you rack your brain trying to remember which cocktail party you met him at, his buddy is making off with your laptop. Beware of anyone or anything that calls your attention away from your computer (or luggage).
Label your laptop. Be sure to put your name all over your laptop and carrying case. Throw some business cards in the side pocket of the case and in any hidden corners of the laptop you can find. That way, if your laptop is merely lost, whoever recovers it can find you easily. And if it's stolen, the cops might catch the thief before he or she has had time to discover -- and dispose of -- all your business cards.
Some products are available to secure your laptop. Most laptops now have a cable port that allows you to use a cable to lock your computer to something like the bathroom sink pipes in a hotel room. There's also security software, such as CompuTrace from Absolute Software ($60 annual fee for monitoring calls). Once the software is installed, it automatically (and silently) calls Absolute on a predetermined schedule -- for example, once a week -- and gives the phone number of the location the laptop is calling from. If you notify Absolute that your laptop has been stolen, the next time the software calls in at the scheduled time, it provides you with the phone number of the thief's location. Of course, this presumes that said thief is using a modem with the laptop -- a not-too-unlikely proposition, after all.
Laptops are a hot commodity nowadays, and burglars will stop at nothing to get yours. Some foreign governments are allegedly hiring spies to steal the laptops of people who work for Fortune 500 companies in order to get their hands on corporate secrets. But even if the secrets on your laptop are pretty tame, don't be lazy about security. It's a lot cheaper to use your common sense.