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Business travelers aren't the only ones enamored of their ever smaller, ever lighter laptop computers. Thieves love them, too. Nearly 320,000 laptops were stolen in the United States in 1999, up from 208,000 in 1995, according to Safeware, an Ohio-based insurance company that specializes in computer coverage. In 1999 alone, Safeware says, losses exceeded $800 million. And that was just for the equipment itself, not for data that might have been worth far more.

When it comes to preventing theft, nothing beats awareness. Treat your machine as if it were your wallet. Don't flash it around. Carry it yourself. Never leave it unattended in public. Other options for protecting portables include:

Cable locks. One end wraps around a post or a piece of furniture and the other fits into the notebook's built-in security slot (standard on most models). Computer Security Products Inc., among others, makes generic locks for many computers.

Alarms. Motion-detectors like Port .com's DEFCON alarm snap onto computers and shriek if the device is touched or moved. Port.com also makes cases with built-in alarms. A road-warrior variation: TrackIT's two-piece system includes a key-chain remote for the owner and an alarm for the computer. If a thief swipes the ma- chine, its alarm wails within seconds.

Built-in security. Some new laptops come with smart cards that lock computers or disk drives when they're not in use. Acer's latest TravelMate model replaces passwords with fingerprint recognition; if a would-be user's prints don't match those in the TravelMate's memory, the computer won't boot.

Tracking devices. Using methods similar to those of the LoJack vehicle- retrieval system, several services now help authorities recover stolen computers (including CyberAngel, Computrace, and zTrace). Users install "stealth software" on their hard drives. If somebody steals the machine and goes online with it, the software automatically signals the tracking service, which can pinpoint the user's location by telephone number or address. Local police handle the rest.

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