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Lifted laptops vex enterprise users

When a laptop gets pilfered, IT shops are the ones that get stuck figuring out what to do next. New technology is making it easier to wipe out data and rescue the hardware.

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A split second in a cab. A fast grab from the baggage claim turnstile. Or a shattered car window.

All of those can result in a stolen laptop and some massive headaches.

Much of the focus on laptop theft right now centers on data theft, and rightly so. But still, there are times when not only the data is of importance. Laptops are expensive and companies spend thousands upon thousands of dollars to equip their workers with the latest devices.

When a laptop gets pilfered, it's a burden for IT. First, IT departments worry about the data stored on it. Then, they have to find a replacement to keep the end user productive. From there, they must worry about how on earth they get that laptop back or who is responsible for paying for a new one, the company or the end user.

Enter Absolute Software Corp., maker of the so-called "LoJack for laptops." Similar to what LoJack, a vehicle retrieval system, does for automobiles, Absolute's Computrace uses IP location to recover a lost or stolen laptop. The embedded agent and small client ping the home server if the laptop goes missing. Also, the machine can be wiped and data deleted to avoid data theft, according to Absolute CEO John Livingston.

With laptop thefts and data loss dominating headlines recently, Livingston said being able to track and recover a missing laptop is an essential tool for enterprises. Wiping data is the first step; recovering the laptop and protecting the investment is the next.

Tony Serrano, a true road warrior with Florida-based Fortune International Realty, put Computrace to use last year when his laptop was stolen out of his car while he was a mere 20 feet away. His device, which contains contacts, financial information and other critical data, was there one second, gone the next.

Serrano said he had forgotten that he installed Computrace on the laptop. It runs in the background and is barely noticeable. But when he returned to his car that day and found his most precious business tool missing, he remembered. He had originally learned about the software after the CFO at his previous company had her laptop pinched and made sure to put some kind of tracking program on its replacement.

"I always carry my laptop with me," he said. "If I'm not carrying it, it's by my feet."

So Serrano called the police, filed a report and called Absolute Software. Within two days, Serrano's laptop was traced to a college campus where authorities found a student using it in a computer lab. The student told police he bought the laptop on the street.

Serrano said his previous job deployed Computrace on all of its deployed laptops, even on desktops to discourage internal theft. The trick, he said, is that it is completely invisible to the end user.

"No one knows it's running in the background," he said.

And laptops can be stolen anywhere, at anytime. A study released late last year by Credant Technologies Inc. found most laptops stolen were taken from office environments. The study focused on 300 mobile professionals whose laptops were stolen at least once. Of the 300 respondents, 29% said their laptops were snatched in the office, while 25% were plucked from a vehicle and 14% were taken on an airplane or in an airport. Other common theft spots include hotels, taxis, homes, buses and restaurants.

Nearly 75% of the respondents said their laptops were protected by only a password, while 21% had no security at all. When asked about encryption, 10% said they use a full disk encryption system, while 8% use software that encrypts only certain data.

Also, roughly 82% of respondents said their laptops were never recovered.

"Encryption is great," Livingston said, "but being able to delete files and recover the device in combination with encryption is the best protection."

But Computrace isn't just for the laptop-toting road warriors and enterprise deployments. It is also a consumer option and can be added when a consumer is building his or her computer online. Dell Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., Lenovo Group Ltd., Gateway Inc. and a host of other major laptop makers offer Computrace as an add-on.

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Read more about protecting against device loss and theft
Janet Maalouf used Computrace to track down her son's stolen laptop last year. Her son's laptop was stolen within a few months of moving in at the University of Maryland. On Nov. 12, laptops owned by Maalouf's son and his two roommates were lifted from their dorm room.

Maalouf said at the time she didn't recall if she purchased the tracking software, but a quick phone call revealed that she had.

"On Dec. 8 they located it and it was recovered in a dorm two floors up," she said. Though the laptop was found less than a month after it was stolen, it took a few extra months for it to go through the legal system. The laptop has since been returned, safe and sound.

As for Maalouf's son's roommates, their laptops are still missing.

"I just can't imagine anyone being without it," she said. "Anyone with a laptop needs this."

Serrano agreed.

"If I ran a huge company, I would have it installed on everything," he said. "Laptops are an asset."

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