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Securing your Laptop from Theft

April 15, 2009 by Sara Nagreen

There has been recent publicity regarding the surge in laptop thefts campus wide.   UW Police reports that the most thefts are not involving students, but staff.  It’s very easy for thieves to walk into open offices or unattended classrooms and take what they’d like.   That can easily be your laptop as well as your wallet. 

UW Police says that there has been a 300% increase in laptop thefts over the previous year.  The FBI is anticipating a 48% increase in laptop theft this year alone. 

This can happen to you.  Practice some safe habits, and record important data about your laptop in the event of a theft.

  • If you aren’t going to be in your office, lock the door behind you. 
  • Note if you see suspicious people around your department, and call for help if you feel unsafe.
  • A laptop security lock is a good idea as a deterrent; a thief isn’t likely to spend the time to try to steal a locked laptop.  Some insurance policies will not cover the cost of a replacement laptop if it wasn't locked in some manner. 
  • If you are not using your laptop, do not keep it in plain sight.  Keep it in a drawer or in a case.  Does your laptop case look like a laptop case?  If your case screams “laptop”, it will be noticed.  Purchase cases that look like backpacks or purses. 
  • If you make your laptop look different from everyone else’s laptop, it will be less likely that someone can use the excuse that they thought it might belong to them.   Many students have been doing this by adding stickers to their cases to personalize them.  
  • Record your computer’s information.  Your computer equipment came with serial numbers or identifying information; write them down somewhere safe. 
  • Another good piece of information might be your computer’s MAC numbers, which are also known as “physical address” information.  This can be useful for identifying your computer on the UW network in the event of a theft.  For information on how to determine this information, see http://lss.wisc.edu/~sara/?q=node/9
  • Make a backup.  A valid argument can be made that the data on your laptop might be more valuable, at least to you, than the laptop itself.  Please ask about backup options and how you might be able to easily use them.  This is important not only in the case of theft but in the case of hardware failure.
  • When traveling with your laptop, take care to keep it in sight.  If going through airport security, put it through the airport scanner last so you can see it at all times and so someone waiting at the end of the conveyer belt can’t take it while you are going through the detector. 
  • If you must use your laptop in a public place, try to use it as far away from an exit as possible.  Many thefts are thefts of opportunity.  The more exposed a thief is, the less likely he or she will take the chance of getting caught.

As additional measures, DoIT will shortly be promoting a registering system that will provide identifying stickers for laptops.  Removing these stickers will mark the laptop as stolen, should it come into the possession of police.  DoIT already provides encryption software for laptops for free, and can even arrange for local IT to assist in the event of a lost password for it.  If you’d like more information about these options, please ask.

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