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How to recover a lost phone, tablet, or laptop

Armando Rodriguez and Nick Mediati | Sept. 26, 2011
The bad news: At some point, your cell phone is likely to go missing. Whether it falls out of your pocket in a cab, or you leave it unattended in a public place for a few seconds only to have it swiped by someone with sticky fingers and low moral fiber, your phone is vulnerable. In fact, according to a report from security software company Symantec, 36 percent of U.S. consumers have had a cell phone disappear on them.

If you prefer tracking your laptop yourself, try out Prey, which installs a small piece of software on your computer that lets you track the system's location via an online control panel. You can also capture screenshots of your laptop if it goes missing (to gather information about a thief), take a photo using the built-in webcam, sound an alarm (useful if you misplace your laptop nearby), remotely lock the computer, and more. The Prey software runs on Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, and Android; installation is fairly straightforward.

The free version of Prey allows you to monitor up to three devices (computers or Android-based phones), and the various "Pro" account options range in price from $5 for a personal account to $400 for a large business.

At this writing, Apple was working on Find My Mac, which is similar to Find My iPhone but for Apple laptops. Find My Mac may be available by the time you read this.

A word of caution: Privacy concerns about device-tracking products have begun to emerge. Shortly before we went to press, a judge ruled that a woman in Ohio could sue Absolute Software, makers of LoJack for Laptops, for allegedly infringing on her privacy after she had unknowingly purchased a stolen laptop. So if you decide to use a device-tracking product on your gear, be sure to use it responsibly.

Lock your laptop: A physical lock isn't foolproof, but it will help prevent someone from swiping your machine off your desk. Companies such as Kensington and Targus sell assorted products that attach to or link through the lock port on most laptops. One from Targus even has an alarm that sounds when someone picks up your laptop.

More Preventive Protection

Label your device: If you're feeling optimistic that your gadget will fall into the hands of a person with a conscience, you can use a service such as BoomerangIt or StuffBak. With both services, you attach a coded label to your device; the label encourages anyone who finds the gear to go to the BoomerangIt or StuffBak website and follow the instructions to report the recovered item. You can also stipulate a monetary reward on the label, which should improve the odds that the finder will do the right thing.

Back up your phone or tablet data frequently: If you're using some flavor of Android, remember that Google backs up most of the basic phone and tablet data (contact lists, email messages, app purchases) and stores it online for you. Focus on backing up photos, videos, and any documents or files you may have downloaded; those items generally aren't synced to Google's servers, so it's up to you to keep regular backups.

 

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