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Originally published Saturday, March 28, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Software can help retrieve your stolen laptop

Recovery software relies on thieves' tendency to put a computer back on a network to see what's on the hard drive or accessible with stored passwords. With abundant Wi-Fi networks, and some computers set to connect automatically to any wireless network, a stolen machine may opportunistically join a network, too.

Special to The Seattle Times

Don't wait for thefts to happen

Tips to help minimize the impact of laptop thefts:

• Make regular backups using a simple method you won't put off.

• Disable automatic login.

• Enable screen-sharing password protection.

• Store passwords in a software "password safe."

• Don't let browsers store passwords.

• Encrypt folders that contain important data, such as financial records.

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She noticed the young men sitting nearby in the Seward Park coffee shop; none of them ordered anything. After 15 minutes, one came over, asked to see her computer, and grabbed it. She grabbed it back, but the fellow retrieved it and he and his friends ran off.

The laptop was lost and, with it, part of her life. The woman, who asked not to be identified, has little chance of recovering her computer.

But there's a way to improve the odds of recovery through software that tracks a computer's whereabouts the moment it's reported to be stolen.

Laptop-recovery software is constantly active but hidden, and a thief can't remove it without erasing the entire laptop; in some cases, even that's not enough. (It's called laptop-recovery software, but you can install it on desktop machines for the same purpose.)

The best time to install this software is right this instant. The worst time to think about installing? Right after your laptop is snatched.

Recovery software relies on thieves' tendency to put a computer back on a network to see what's on the hard drive or accessible with stored passwords. With abundant Wi-Fi networks, and some computers set to connect automatically to any wireless network, a stolen machine may opportunistically join a network, too.

The recovery software regularly checks for an Internet connection, talking to a software company's servers to see whether the machine was reported lost or missing.

If your machine is taken, you go to the software maker's Web site and either log in to your account and click a button, or you enter a special code the firm gives you that's unique to the laptop.

A recovery mode activates the next time your laptop checks in. While features vary among programs, every recovery package automatically grabs network data, recording the unique IP address that typically identifies a location on an Internet service provider's network, and can be tied to a physical location.

Some software will start snapping pictures (without any audible sound) if there's a built-in camera, such as on Apple's series of laptops. A few packages now use Wi-Fi networks to create a rough position using a constantly updated national location database from Skyhook Wireless.

In most packages, the software company operates a central monitoring service that collects data the stolen computer sends. Depending on the company, you might be provided with this information and need to take it to authorities, or the company will call the local police force to transfer the data.

One company, GadgetTrak, prefers to have the software send that information directly to accounts you control, avoiding the possibility of remote monitoring without your knowledge. The company assists customers in working with the police.

Many companies advertise a 90 to 95 percent recovery rate for laptops or desktop computers with their software installed in cases where a user has marked it as stolen.

Some programs require an annual subscription fee that includes the software and monitoring; significant discounts are often available for multiyear subscriptions. Others charge a one-time fee, but you have to pay for upgrades if you want newer features. Most companies also offer multi-user discounts linked to the same account.

Computrace LoJack for Laptops: (www.lojackforlaptops.com, $39.99 for Standard, $59.99 for Premium, 1-year subscription). This software works as a black box, communicating directly with Computrace's monitoring center. Many major-brand Windows computers (www.absolute.com/products-bios-enabled-computers.asp) have an extra capability the Premium version of LoJack can activate.

The software is partly stored in the BIOS, a part of a computer that's used to start up a system before the hard drive is accessed and operating system loaded. The BIOS can't be affected by a thief erasing a hard drive.

The Premium version can also let you remotely erase your hard drive to protect data — that's the advantage of being stored in the BIOS — and comes with a somewhat limited $1,000 service guarantee.

The $39.99 version is available for Mac OS X or Windows. The Premium version is for Windows only. (LoJack is a licensed name; the product is not connected with the anti-car theft system.)

GadgetTrak: (www.gadgettrak.com/) GadgetTrak believes only you should get tracking data. The company offers several different packages for Windows and Mac OS X. Its Mac software, MacTrak ($24.95 per year), uses Wi-Fi positioning to provide a good location in a city or town, and sends e-mail and uploads photos snapped via the built-in camera to a Flickr photo-sharing account (you can set up a basic account at no cost at Flickr.com).

Windows Standard Edition ($29.95 per year) sends basic network information, while Search & Destroy ($64.95 per year) can remotely destroy data on the laptop, too.

Undercover 3 from Orbicule: (www.orbicule.com/undercover/, $49, no recurring fee) I use this software. It's a Mac OS X-only package that takes pictures of the active screen, snaps photos through the built-in camera and uses Wi-Fi positioning data to obtain a location. The software also has a neat option: If the computer isn't recovered within a period of time after it's marked as stolen, it activates a mode that simulates slow screen failure.

If the computer is then brought in to a known repair location, like an Apple Store, a speech program is used to scream out that the computer is stolen and display a recover message on its screen.

It's certainly traumatic to lose your computer: It's not just the money or the lost time and effort; it's as if a piece of your life was ripped from your body. Installing this kind of software can help ease the trauma as you go through recovery.

Glenn Fleishman, one of the writers of the Practical Mac column, is a frequent contributor to Personal Technology.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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