Small and mid-sized businesses are increasingly mobile, with up to 38 percent of the company out of the office at any one time, according to The Yankee Group. With mobility comes the need for protecting company laptops from being lost or stolen when in airports, hotels, restaurants, and even when left in the back of a cab.

And that's not all. The unfortunate reality is losing the computer itself may be the least of your firm's worries if there is valuable company data that resides on that portable computer.

“Because your critical data is walking out the corporate door every day, employees need to know how to protect that data,” says Carmi Levy, senior vice president of strategic consulting at AR Communications, a Toronto-based consulting firm. “The difference between a laptop in the field and a desktop in the office is the latter has more security around it, such as locked doors, card access, and a receptionist who allows the right people in and [keeps] wrong people out,” adds Levy. “In the field, there’s no physical barrier around a laptop, so leaving it alone in an unprotected areas is an invitation to thieves.”

It's hard for authorities to get a handle on the magnitude of the problem with laptop theft in the business world, primarily because businesses sometimes don't want to admit that it's such a big problem. The 2005 Computer Security Institute/ FBI study of computer crime found that $4 million in laptops were stolen that year, but $31 in theft of proprietary information occurred at the same time. However, a private firm, Safeware Insurance, which sells insurance protection against computer theft and other damage, reports that more than 600,000 laptop thefts occurred in 2004, totaling an estimated $720 million in hardware losses and $5.4 billion in theft of proprietary information. Last year, a study by the Ponemon Institute, an IT think-tank, reported that 81 percent of companies reported a loss of at least one laptop during the previous year.

The good news is there is no shortage of hardware and software solutions -- and a bit of common sense -- that can greatly reduce the chances of being separated from your laptop and the potentially sensitive corporate information embedded on it.

The following are a few laptop theft prevention tools to consider:

Lock it

If you must be away from your laptop for a couple of minutes, such as going to the bathroom while in an airport lounge, physically secure your PC with a cable and lock solution. “Locks are the best insurance against notebook theft -- they provide security against opportunistic theft, the most common threat,” says Roma Majumder, senior global product manager for security at Kensington, a manufacturer of notebook locks. Kensington's products include the $40 MicroSaver Notebook Lock, which features a retractable aircraft-grade steel cable and keyless four-wheel combination lock. Levy cautions users, however, a hardware lock should only be considered a deterrent: “If thieves are determined enough they can get your laptop, but you want to make it as hard for them as possible.”

Encrypt it

While third-party options are available, many mobile executives are using Windows Vista’s built-in BitLocker encryption technology that can protect the data on the laptop, should it fall into the wrong hands. Available in Windows Vista Enterprise and Windows Vista Ultimate, this data-protection tool encrypts the entire Windows operating system volume on the hard disk (including user files and system files) so that the data is inaccessible unless the user provides the right password or biometrics ID. “Any mobile machine must have some sort of full-drive encryption,” says Levy. “A thief may walk away with a $2,000-machine, but nothing else.”

Scan it

Many laptops now offer a fingerprint reader, so you -- and only you -- can access your important files and folders. Usually this finger scanner is located near the keyboard or just underneath the laptop's screen. Many PC manufacturers are offering laptops with biometric security, such as HP, Lenovo, and Sony. Some companies encourage employees to use both a password and biometrics solution. A few third-party fingerprint scanners exist, such a USB-based model from Microsoft, but the Redmond, Wash.-based company suggests this accessory be used for convenience, such as not having to remember many passwords on your favorite websites, rather than to secure your company’s data.

Secure it

“Another risk,” maintains Levy, “is when the data leaves the machine, such as when you’re using e-mail on your laptop.” Specifically, users should log into the company’s secured network to send messages or files rather than relying on free Web-based e-mail programs. Another issue is fake Wi-Fi networks, set up by thieves in an effort to steal personal, financial, or corporate data. “Most of us think nothing of finding a free service at an airport or hotel, but we may not realize these could be rogue connections set up by criminals to steal our data -- it doesn’t take much,” Levy says. That's why it's important to use only trusted Wi-Fi networks, such as the hotel’s secured connection.