Make your PC difficult to steal, easy to recover

Scott dunn By Scott Dunn

For little or no money, you can lower the chances that your computer will be targeted by thieves.

Take a few simple steps now to make your notebook and desktop PCs easier to recover should they ever be lost.

Secure your computers from real-world threats

A common saying in the computer world is that if an intruder has physical access to your computer, it’s not your computer anymore. I’ve written recently about ways to protect your system from malware embedded in Flash animations (Apr. 17) and harmful Web sites (May 1). But what about securing the computer itself?

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The Seattle Times reported recently that Microsoft has given law-enforcement agencies a tool for decrypting passwords and analyzing computer activity and data. According to reports in Wired and elsewhere, Microsoft’s Computer Online Forensic Evidence Extractor (COFEE) is a USB thumb drive that houses a collection of 150 off-the-shelf utilities. None of the programs were developed by Microsoft, and all of them are available to the public separately.

The programs, which include Windows Forensic Toolchest and RootkitRevealer, run from a script, so police officers don’t have to start each utility individually. By running the script from a USB drive, law-enforcement officials can collect information located in the PC’s RAM or available via a network connection. This data might be lost if the computer were unplugged and taken back to a lab.

If law-enforcement agencies and the public at large can get these tools, you have to wonder how the snoop apps might be used by co-workers who don’t have your best interests or privacy in mind.

Whether you’re concerned with others prying into your data or stealing your valuable hardware, protecting physical access to your computer is one of the wisest security moves you can make. Think of the things you take care not to lose, such as your house keys and your wallet. You keep these things safe by always knowing where they are or by storing them in secure locations. If you value your electronics, you should treat them the same way.

A number of vendors offer tools for securing your laptop, monitor, or CPU to a desk or other immovable object. Other PC security products put your system in a locked box or block access to drive ports and other controls. A variety of cables and other locks for laptops, desktops, and other equipment are available online. One popular site for such hardware is Secure-It.

However, there’s plenty you can do to lock down your PC without spending much — or anything at all.

Enhance recoverability by leaving your mark

If your system (or your cell phone, PDA, or other portable electronic device) is found by an honest person, your chances of reclaiming it are better if it has been permanently labeled with your contact information.

The best labeling approach is to use an engraving tool to etch your contact information into the case of your PC or other equipment.

If you think putting your name and phone number on your devices gives up too much privacy, label the equipment with the e-mail address of an account whose name displays little or no identifying information. Most ISPs let you create multiple e-mail accounts, or you can sign up for a free account at Yahoo Mail, Gmail, or another Web service.

You’re more likely to get a response from the person who finds your lost laptop by attaching your phone number to the device. And you’ll increase your chances of recovering a lost or stolen PC even more by including an incentive such as “$300 reward” on your label.

Only a few of the many services designed to help recover missing products are free. For a limited time, Windows XP users who sign up early for the Laptop Superhero beta program at YouGetItBack.com can get in free. Download and install the software, and then register your information in the service’s “secure vault.” If someone reports finding your laptop, the company helps you get it back, just like the name says.

A related program that’s also free for the time being is LaptopLock. Install the software, set your preferences, and register with the service. The next time a computer you’ve reported as missing connects to the Internet, LaptopLock will detect it and perform whichever actions you’ve set up beforehand: delete or encrypt specified files, run a program or batch file of your choice, or display a message.

LaptopLock will also attempt to send identifying info about the notebook’s current IP address, although it’s questionable whether knowing the crook’s IP address would actually help police recover your computer.

The for-pay recovery option. Computer Security Products sells a hard-to-remove aluminum label that lists the company’s phone number and a serial number. A single label costs $25, and a package of 10 is priced at $150.

Should anyone contact the service about finding a system you’ve registered with the company, you’ll be notified and can make arrangements for retrieving the item. The label etches the contact information into the device’s case to protect you — even if someone removes the label itself.

Less-expensive (and less secure) labels for keys, luggage, and electronics are available for $10 to $15 from YouGetItBack.com.

In addition to LaptopLock’s free (for now) service, a number of for-pay services help you track stolen computers over the Internet. One of the leading PC-recovery services is ComputraceComplete from Absolute Software. The service costs $50 per year. If it doesn’t recover your laptop within 60 days of its loss, you may be eligible for the company’s $1,000 Theft Recovery Guarantee.

Sound the alarm to prevent tampering

As I mentioned above, the best way to prevent your PC and other hardware from being stolen or accessed is to lock it away. Your lockdown strategy depends on your location:
  • Hotel: Don’t assume that items are safe just because they are locked in your hotel room. Get a room with a safe for storing laptops and other valuables, or take such items with you when you leave the room.
  • Office: Notebook computers, removable hard drives, laptop memory cards, USB thumb drives, PDAs, and any other equipment in your office that is easily removed should be put in a locked cabinet overnight and on weekends. If your company doesn’t provide such a cabinet, suggest that it get one.
  • Traveling: Airports and other travel scenes present so many possible distractions that it takes only a moment for someone to snatch an unattended item or for you to leave something behind. Never leave a laptop visible in your car; if you must, stow it in the car’s trunk, but try to avoid being seen locking such items there. If you need to put your computer down for a moment while you’re in any public setting, keep the case between your feet.
The free Laptop Alarm alerts you when your computer is touched by someone. After you install the program and activate the lock function, you can set the laptop alarm to play a loud warning sound when the machine loses AC power, when its mouse moves or is unplugged, or when the system shuts down or logs off.

Laptop alarm settings
Figure 1. Laptop Alarm will sound an alert when the options you select occur.

Even if the notebook’s sound is muted or turned down, Laptop Alarm turns the sound back on and plays the alarm at full blast. You can set a password to unlock your system or turn off the alarm.

Naturally, this software won’t guard your computer in a coffee shop while you use the restroom. But if you need to pay attention to other things for a while, the program can help alert you if someone is tampering with your system.

Laptop Alarm is currently listed as a beta product, so some of its advertised features may not yet work. Still, the alarm worked quite well when I tested the program.

Scott Dunn is associate editor of the Windows Secrets Newsletter. He has been a contributing editor of PC World since 1992 and currently writes for the Here’s How section of that magazine.
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