Laptop lockdown: Tracking down the thief

Recovering your laptop after it has been stolen is not as quite imposible as it might seem, as Louise Murray finds out

A few years ago, thieves broke into Alexander Kesler's apartment. To his relief his laptop was not amongst the valuables taken but it started him thinking. What would have happened if his computer and business files had been stolen? The odds of seeing them again would be practically zero. Absolute Software employee Christian Cotichini was less lucky and never saw his again.

The concept of employing a private detective to track down your stolen laptop or pocket PC may seem a little extreme but the laptop recovery software that Kesler and Cotichini went on to write after their experiences is designed to do the Colombo work for you. Cotichini, who continues as a board member for Absolute Software, had the idea for the Vancouver-based company's tracking agent Computrace back in 1994. This and other follow-on patents were granted through 2001. Kesler founded zTrace Technologies in 1999 and the zTrace anti-theft tracking system was born soon after.

The average loss due to laptop theft is $89,000 and 97 percent of stolen computers are never recovered, according to figures from the 2002 Computer Security Institute (CSI) / FBI Computer Crime and Security Survey. Some more statistics to bear in mind if you own a laptop come from a specialist insurer of computers, electronics and hi-tech equipment safeware, the Insurance Agency, Inc., who estimate that up to 620, 000 computers were stolen last year in the U.S. This is not a very reassuringpicture.

"Property theft is not always the highest priority on police files," said Mark St Quintin, Absolute Software's vice president of product management. "Using a stealthy tracking agent makes their jobs easier."

With anti-theft laptop tracking, once a laptop is reported stolen, the next time the computer is connected to the internet or phone line, it will automatically send a message with its phone number and IP address to the vendor. The vendor receiving the report can then identify the ISP and registered user and law enforcement agencies are brought in to recover the property.

"The first time they're contacted, some jurisdictions are skeptical and need prodding," said St Quintin. "But finding a laptop can sometimes lead to finding a load of other stuff. We had one case where a laptop was traced to a Texas school and a truck was needed to take the total amount of stolen property - including chairs and desks - away."

According to Gary Bloom, vice president of sales at zTrace Technologies, hundreds of thousands of its products have been sold to the corporate and education sectors worldwide and the success rate of retrieval using its software is around 80 percent.

Amongst other companies that provide tracking software is Nashville based CyberAngel Security Systems (CSS Inc). "We have been in business for six and a half years now, and have compiled a respectable recovery rate of 87 percent to date.

Industry standards also show a high recovery rate when a recovery product such as the CyberAngel is employed," said Bradley Lide, the company's president and owner. "The time of alert from date of theft has averaged out to about 23 days."

Recent success stories from CSS include a report about a sales agent for AFLAC Insurance based in Atlanta, Georgia. He had his car broken into and the company laptop computer in his trunk stolen. The stolen computer was apparently bought on the street and as soon as it was used a covert alert was sent to the CyberAngel Security Monitoring Center, providing CSS with the location details of that stolen computer. Local law enforcement authorities were alerted and given the location information to secure a search warrant for the premises. According to the firm the computer was recovered and back in the hands of the owner in days.

Corky McClellan, director of marketing at North Carolina-based tracking system provider LapTrak, tells a less optimistic story. "A laptop may sit on a shelf in a pawn shop or under some kid's bed for a year or so until someone connects to a phone line or the internet." The company is a younger division of 20 year-old security firm Secure-iT and said it is awaiting its first recovery.

Absolute Software's St Quintin agrees that it can take anything from an hour to two years, but puts the number of machines recovered for its customers over the last year at around 250, with a record recovery time of 20 minutes.

In Europe, the market is only now starting to take off. One of the first companies on the scene is AffinityOne, whose Stealth product has already clocked up big-name customers in the U.S. such as IBM, Polaroid, Bristol Myers and AT&T.

"Apart from the Stealth product, no others have support or proper recovery capabilities set up within the U.K.," said Paul Delaney, director of AffinityOne, "We understand that the police will not always react quickly to a property theft, so we have put in mechanisms to ensure that we get the required response." n

Louise Murray is reporter for SC Magazine.

Stealth signal recovery report

Stealth Signal Monitoring Center, Bogota, Columbia, October 26, 2001, 3 p.m.

Yolanda Robles, an employee at Garantia Temporal, called to report the office had been broken into at midday while everyone was out for lunch. Yolanda was instructed to contact the local police station to report the theft. Yolanda was quoted as saying, "Dr Gomez does not want me to waste my time reporting this to the police when they are not going to do anything." Nevertheless, she was instructed that it was an important part of the procedure that needed to be done as quickly as possible.

Approximately three weeks later on November 19, 2001, the Stealth Monitoring Center in Bogota received a telephone signal from one of the three stolen computers. Immediately, the Stealth Signal Investigate team went to work by contacting Mayor Carlos Rodriguez of the SIJIN (the Columbian equivalent to the FBI) and informing him of the situation along with data collected by the Stealth Signal transmitter. After a short investigation Mayor Carlos Rodriguez found that the signal was sent from the house of one of the building security guards. The guard was arrested and informed the police that he had sold the rest of the equipment to a local pawnshop. All the equipment was recovered .

(Taken from a report prepared by Greg Gibson, security director of Affinity One)

What can you do to reduce the risk of having your laptop stolen?

Guidelines from the Washington DC Police Dept.

  • Don't leave a laptop in an unlocked vehicle.
  • Parking garages are likely areas for thefts from vehicles, as they provide numerous choices and cover for thieves. Never leave your laptop in plain sight; cover it or put it in the trunk.
  • Do be aware of the damage extreme temperatures can cause to computers.
  • Carry your laptop in a nondescript carrying case, briefcase or bag.
  • Going to lunch, or taking a break? Don't leave a meeting or conference room without your laptop. Take it with you.
  • Lock the laptop in your office during off-hours.
  • Don't have your own office? Use a cable lock that wraps around a desk or chair leg. Or put the laptop in a locked closet or cabinet.
  • Don't let unaccompanied strangers wander around in your workplace. Offer assistance and deliver the visitors to their destinations.
  • Apply distinctive paint markings to make your laptop unique and easily identifiable. Liquid white-out is a good substance to apply.
  • Be aware that if your computer is stolen, automatic log-ins can make it easy for a thief to send inappropriate messages with your account.
  • Back up your information on disks today, and store the disks at home or the office.

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