Now You See It, Now You Don’t: Preventing Laptop Computer Theft

When Irwin Jacobs, chief executive and founder of Qualcomm Inc. had his laptop stolen from a journalism conference in September 2000, it shed light on a growing problem.

Other recent events have focused national attention on the laptop security issue, consider the following:

o In July 2001 the Federal Bureau of Investigation reported that 184 laptops had been stolen or lost. At least one and possibly as many as four contained classified information.

o In April 2001 the British Defense Ministry reported 205 laptops missing since 1997, most of which contained classified materials.

o In February 2000 a laptop computer with “highly classified” information disappeared from the U.S. State Department. Then, in May 2000 two more laptops were reported missing from the U.S. State Department.

While technology has made laptops smaller, easier to store and transport, it has also made them easier to conceal and steal. It’s the convenience that has made the laptop computer so popular and the information vehicle of choice for business people throughout the world.

.The computer itself is a valuable asset and one that should be protected, but it can be replaced, however, the information stored on it in many cases is not replaceable and of greater value to competitors if compromised. A thief can get a few thousand dollars for a top of the line laptop, but he can get a whole lot more for a company’s marketing plans.

High Risk Locations

A high percentage of laptops are stolen from the office. FBI officials estimate as much as 75 percent of laptop thefts are committed by insiders, individuals who are expected to be on the premises. For example, employees, delivery people and janitors all have access to the grounds and buildings and have opportunities to steal unprotected laptops.

In one case, Canadian authorities apprehended a man believed to have stolen 20 to 30 laptops from an office building over a span of a few weeks. The suspect would enter the building dressed as a maintenance employee, load computers onto a dolly and exit the building. He performed this routine so often, that building employees believed he was actually a member of the maintenance staff.

According to a USA Today article, heightened airport security as a result of the September 11 terrorist attack has caused an increase in the number of lost laptops at airport checkpoints. . The problems stem from new procedures that require passengers to remove their laptops from their cases and put them through x-ray machines. They either forget to pick them up or grab a stranger’s laptop by accident. It becomes more problematic for travelers who are singled out for magnetic wand searches and may be separated from their valuables on the conveyor belt for extended periods of time.

Business travelers should also pay close attention to their laptops when at the following locations:


*Train Stations

*Bus terminals

*Car rental agencies

*Conference Centers




Always remember, laptop theft can happen anyplace, at any time.

Laptop Theft Prevention Tips


o Disguise your laptop. By carrying your laptop in a case designed for computers, you alert the thieves you have a laptop. Carry your laptop in an ordinary piece of luggage, satchel or other inconspicuous bag.

o Record the laptop serial number, make and model information. Keep this information in your purse or wallet so if your computer is stolen, the information will be readily available when you file a police report.

o Never leave your laptop unattended in a public place.

o Use computer-locking cables to secure the computer to a desk or table

o Never place a computer in checked luggage.

o If a laptop must be left in the car, store it in the trunk of the vehicle prior to arriving at the final destination.

o Identify your carrying case in some unusual way to make it stand out from all other bags. An unusual color, colored tape or yarn or exceptionally large or brightly colored tags attached to the bag will help you immediately locate the bag and give police probable cause to stop and question the carrier.

o Also consider taping colored paper or placing a large tag on the front of you laptop to avoid accidental mix-ups at the x-ray machine.

o Regularly back up information and store it separately in case your computer is stolen.


o All laptops should be permanently marked or engraved with inventory or serial numbers so they can aid in recovery if found by the police. Check with the manufacturer regarding appropriate marking locations and warranty criteria prior to marking.

o Conduct scheduled inventories of laptops periodically.

o Proper documentation should be maintained for all laptops. Records could include the type of equipment identifiers such as make, model and inventory or serial numbers, an equipment assignment date, and the employee responsible for the laptop.

o Some companies utilize electronic asset tracking technology. Employers can tag laptops with a small electronic transponder. If an employee attempts to leave the building with the computer, the system records the time, date and exit used. Some systems can also give security the ID of the employee taking the equipment.

o Access to the area where laptops are stored when not assigned should be limited to a select few individuals.

o The limited access storage area should be situated away from high traffic areas.

o Access should be controlled to areas such as offices where employees utilize laptops. This can also be accomplished through the use of ID card systems.

o Some companies have established policies making employees responsible for the loss of a laptop if they do not follow company policy for safeguarding it. Communicate the policy in writing and get a signed statement of acknowledgement.

o Employers have also been known to require employees to purchase their laptops, reasoning that employees will better care for them.

o Provide employees with loss prevention and security awareness training. E-mails, brown bag luncheons, new hire orientations security awareness literature/posters and video presentations are all excellent vehicles for getting the word out.

o Provide employees with adequate secure storage areas for their laptops such as locked security closets, cabinets and lockdown devices at desks and workstations.

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