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Laptop Theft, Know Before You Go

Why Criminals Steal Laptops

10 years ago when travelers were victimized the object of theft was cameras; five years ago it was camcorders, today it is laptops.  Criminals look at laptops as a good return on their “investment”.  A good laptop can be worth up to 5,000 dollars.  A criminal can sell a stolen laptop to an unsuspecting used computer store or pawnshop and easily receive up to half its value in cash.  Not too bad when you compare that to the amount of cash a thief would get by targeting your wallet.  How much money would they get from you, $60.00?  It easy to understand why your laptop is so desirable to a thief.  In addition to the obvious monetary benefit, there is also a legal benefit to stealing property vs. someone’s money.  Most career criminals know that the penalties for a crime against property (theft) are less severe than those of a crime against a person (robbery) like stealing money. So to sum it up, laptops are worth more than cash, and the penalty for stealing one is less severe..

What Criminals Do With Stolen Laptops

One of the easiest locations for a thief to get rid of a laptop is selling it on a street corner.  If the crook is brazen enough, he will take it to a pawnshop or sell to a fence who in turn takes it to one of those computer swap meets held on weekends. In one of the cases I handled, the crook would walk into a pawn shop and tell the store employee that his sister died in an accident and the laptop was hers, and he had no use for it.   A good crook will then produce a phony driver's license or identification card and the pawn will never be traced back to him.  Many people think because laptops have serial numbers they can be traced as stolen property.  This is a false sense of security.  In real life, I have been able to return very  few stolen laptops.   As a police detective who has investigated thousands of crimes of stolen property, I would guess that less than ten percent of the victims had their serial numbers recorded for report purposes.

Used Computer Stores or Repair Centers

Question, if you bought your own laptop, where was it purchased or where would you purchase it?  Chances are that it would be from some large computer store or retail outlet.   Did you know these mega stores also sell used and refurbished equipment?  Additionally, independent repair centers sell used equipment too.   In essence, there is quite a large market for used, high ticket, fast evolving items such as computers, and many people who are trying to serve that need from retailers to thieves.  

Computer Swap Meets

Swap meets are even less likely to be checked by law enforcement for stolen goods.  People who sell computers at these events are unregulated and many, if not all, do not report their sales or purchases to the police department.  The purpose for reporting your purchases is to verify that the property is not stolen.  This is where those recorded serial numbers come in handy!  If a crook does business with a swap meet vendor you can be sure it is virtually an untraceable transaction.

Insurance Statistics

The most widely accepted source for product theft information is Safeware Insurance (, an insurer, specializing computers. Safeware creates annual estimates of computer loses based upon projections of the claims made by its customers (it insures one in every 1,000 personal computers in the United States). They publish an annual report that is generally viewed as a barometer of losses suffered by computer users. Safeware estimates over 307,000 laptop computers valued over $1 billion were stolen in the U.S. in 1997; an increase of 16% from the 265,000 reported stolen in 1996. By contrast, the theft of desktop computers fell 31% between 1997 and 1996. Safeware’s projected annual losses may actually be lower than the norm since people who purchase insurance for their PC’s are usually more careful and security conscious than those who do not; and of course there are those who, for whatever reason do not report the theft. Safeware also estimates that five percent of all machines will be stolen within twelve months of purchase and of all machines stolen, only 3% will ever be recovered.

Employer Responsibility

It’s never happened to any of my employees

If you could not answer the question above, don’t feel bad.  Most Fortune 500 companies don’t either.  Interesting enough, when an employee is issued a laptop computer for business, they are usually given diskettes, software books, and of course the phone number of the Information resources department in case they have a problem.  But very few companies provide any information on protecting property from theft while on the road.  Most companies just expect their employees are street smart and are aware of all the schemes and scams utilized by professional criminalsto separate laptops from travelers at airports, hotels, and car rental agencies.  Another reason why many companies don’t educate their traveling employees about preventing the theft of laptops is because it hasn’t happened to them.  Yet, it happens.  The FBI’s commissioned study of computer crime shows that the theft of notebook computers is the most common problem in computer crime

By educating your employees in laptop theft prevention strategies and providing them simple yet effective laptop security cables, you could potentially save your company from countless problems down the road.

What if one of your laptops containing all of your company's current pricing structure, sales leads, and customer orders, were lost and the employee who had the laptop did not properly back up the data.

Worst yet, what if the data fell into the hands of your competitor?

If your employees have not fallen victim to the theft of property while on the road, consider them fortunate, because the theft of laptop computers, along with the theft of briefcases and other personal property has become a mult- million dollar problem facing travelers.

Probably the two most effective means of preventing the theft of laptops is by educating the business traveler on laptop safety awareness and by issuing laptop security locks through the employer.  An easy way to implement the educational aspect is to show a laptop theft prevention training video.  The video demonstrates how thieves target laptops and gain access to valuable corporate information.  One of the best videos on the subject is " Now You See It, Now You Don't: Preventing Laptop Computer Theft" which is now available (  The video examines the value of the computer, not only in real dollar cost but also in the information it contains, information that may be worth thousands, even millions of dollars.  The presentation guides the viewer through a series of potential theft opportunities while illustrating the incorrect and correct methods of theft prevention.  Dramatic examples show the viewer what to look out for and  how to avoid "High-Risk" situations.  The viewer will be amazed at the vulnerability of the lap top and where the most thefts occur.  It also examines various mechanical and electronic methods of theft prevention as well as simple ways to aid in the recovery process should the unexpected happen.

Most companies, which issue laptops to their employees, are more concerned with providing equipment usage information than they are with safety. Typically, they give the employee a few software manuals, computer disks and the phone number to the I/S manger, for answering questions.  The employee is seldom given information about theft prevention or provided a lock to secure it while in the office or on the road.  In addition, by now carrying an expensive laptop, the employer increases a traveling employee’s potential to falling victim to a crime.  Employees need to be taught how to best safe guard the laptop and along with it, the often confidential information contained inside. Specifically, employees need to be made aware of the most likely locations and methods criminals use to steal laptops.  Proactive safety training can save a company thousands of dollars and even help avert potential lawsuits from victimized employees or from clients who’s data may have been compromised.

Here are a few other tips:

  • Create an atmosphere where employees are regularly briefed about topics such as new scams involving laptop theft. This can be accomplished by conducting crime prevention seminars and using information mediums such as newsletters and interoffice E-mail systems.

  • Establish a policy making the employee responsible for the loss of the laptop if they do not follow company policy for safeguarding it on the premises or if they lose it outside of the building. Communicate this policy in writing and get a signed statement of acknowledgment.

  • Provide employees with adequate secure storage areas for their laptops, such as locked security closets, cabinets and lock down devices at desks and work stations.

  • Create a procedure where the company's security department or managers can remove unattended laptops for "safekeeping" leaving a tag or sticker in its place. The sticker will let the employee know the laptop was removed for safekeeping and can be picked up at the security office or other designated area. This will immediately prevent the theft of the laptop and will make the employee more aware that the laptop could have been stolen. This procedure provides a means of tracking employees by placing a notice in their personnel folder.

  • Keep an inventory of all company owned laptops and computers. Know to whom and where they are assigned. Maintain a record of serial numbers, including those on the hard drive.

  • Employees that travel with laptops containing sensitive information should use removable hard drives and carry them separately from the laptop. Backup files should be made regularly.

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

  • There are many products on the market for securing laptops, one of the most cost effective is a laptop cable lock or one coupled with a audible alarm.  Be cautious of cheap products.  You get what you pay for.  One of the best quality locks on the market are the MicroSaver Security Cable and the SonicLock, manufactured by Kensington Products   Other products include lock down devices, tracking software and alarms. These can be found using the internet and conducting a search for "laptop theft prevention".

  • Promptly report thefts to you local police department

  • Contact the manufacture of the laptop if it stolen.  Many will make a computer entry so if someone were to call or send it in for service, the police and the owner would be notified.  

Employee responsibility

Each employee should be aware of the laptop’s value and why it is important to protect it from theft.  Most employees feel the theft of laptops always is not a big thing.  Employees need to take responsibility for depends to someone else, and that a laptop is just something that is an extra piece of equipment that that have to carry around.  The employee must take responsibility for the protection of the companies information, and by taking this responsibility, they must take the time to learn how professional criminals operate.  Some companies will allow employees to expense out an insurance rider on their personal insurance to cover laptop theft.  The very least a traveler should do is always use a security device to secure the laptop in the office (41% of all laptop thefts are stolen from the office) and on the road.

Insurance and laptops

Insuring of laptops falls into three areas.  The most likely scenario is that a laptop is the property of a company and thereby is self-insured.  This means if it is stolen, the company pays for it out of its budget and the loss is not reported to an insurance company

The second most common type of insurance would be an employee who has a laptop cover under his or her own personal insurance.  The insuring of computers may or may not be covered under your homeowners insurance and it is highly encouraged that owners of laptops contact their primary insurance company.  Most t of the time computers is not coverage by homeowners or the coverage is minimal.

The third type of insurance would be Third party insurance. This insurance is issued by a company that primary provides coverage for laptops and related items.  This is probably the most extensive type of coverage on the market and covers a wide variety of situations, from damage to theft.  For example if your laptop were damaged as a result of a power surge, this type of insurance would cover it.  The premium for this type of insurance is based on the value of your laptop.  It purchases by the value of the products when it was purchase.  I would caution you to compare the type of coverage between different companies.  You will be surprised with the variations and the particular incidents where particular companies may not pay the claim.

Credit Card Insurance and Laptops

Credit card insurance may be another avenue that might provide coverage.  The coverage is very different between cards, and to be quite frank, a few cards provide a lot better coverage that others.  Many of these cards, fall into the “Gold Card” category and insure products against theft and damage for the first 30 to 60 days.  It is highly recommended that anytime you purchase an electronic items that your purchase it with one of these cards, it may not pay for the value of it if stolen, but it might pay for it’s repair if dropped.

Vulnerable Locations

Although the theft of a laptop computer can occur at any place or time, there are certain obvious locations-- company offices, airports, hotels and conference centers, college campuses, libraries and hospitals -- where incidents occur most frequently. So it obviously pays to pay particular attention to your machine at these locations. In places such as hospitals and libraries, laptops are stolen by people who either have or appear to have a legitimate reason for being there. This may include contractors, service persons, custodians, delivery persons or even vendors.

Additional tips to avoid laptop theft

Would you leave a bag filled with $3,000 in cash sitting in your car or alone in your hotel room? Of course not. Then why do you leave your computer sitting on the passenger seat or on your hotel desk while you are out.   If you depend on a notebook computer for school or work, having it stolen would be a disaster. We won't bore you with mind-numbing stats about how many computers are stolen every year -- we'll just jump right into our tips.

Don't take your eyes off your laptop

Remember, most laptop thefts occur at hotels, airports, or while in the rental car.  Criminals don't have to rob you with a gun for your laptop, they just have to wait for you to set it down when you make a call at the airport phone booth.  If you do set it down, make sure it is directly in front of you - not to the left, right, or behind you.  It just take a second for a thief to make off with it. 

Lock it down

if you were to leave your hotel room, would you leave a wallet sitting on the night stand with $3,000 dollars in it?  Of course not.  But you would leave a laptop.  Never leave a laptop alone in a hotel room without locking it down with a cable lock.  If you do not have one, make sure the laptop is secured with a laptop cable lock or audible security cable alarm hidden from view, or in the room safe (if it fits).  Remember, good crooks are good actors and actresses.  The simply walk into your hotel room when the maid is doing nighttime turndown service and says it is her room.  She tips the maid and walk out with one of your bags.  Also be very careful about leaving your laptop in hotel meeting rooms.  I have seen numerous laptop theft that occurred when the owner just left the meeting room for a 5 minute break.  A crook simply walks into a meeting room during break time in a suit and blends in.  Pretends the laptop is his and walks out.  No one is checking ID at the door of your meeting room.  

Locking Cable Tips

  • Do not leave laptops unattended, particularly overnight on desktops. If your desk is in a high traffic area or an area accessible by the public, secure your laptop anytime you’ re away from your desk.
  • Do not position laptops near exterior windows where they are subject to a smash and grab type theft.

Storage in cars

  • If a laptop must be left in a car keep it locked and out of sight.
  • While riding, place the case between the drivers seat and the rear seat so it won't slide around.
  • Avoid storage in very cold or very hot weather.

Disguise your laptop

  • By carrying your laptop in a case designed for computers, you immediately alert thieves that you have a laptop, even before you take it out to begin working. Carrying your laptop in an ordinary piece of luggage or briefcase will help deter theft.

Management Controls

  • Engrave the company name/ ID on all laptops.
  • Maintain and keep current a list of assignees, assigned equipment serial numbers and software.
Provide annual loss prevention training and periodic reminders to maintain adequate safety and security awareness. Written Policies and Procedures should cover items such as:
  • The individual should be responsible and held accountable for the safety and security of the assigned equipment.
  • The individual should be held responsible in the event of loss of unattended or unsecured equipment.
  • Require a signed copy of the policy statement from all computer assignees.
  • Audit annually, policies, procedures and assigned equipment and software lists.
  • Loss investigations must be done an all stolen equipment. Do not easily accept loss, damage or theft of company property. Investigate all accidents and publicize the results.

Know all of the scams used by thieves to rip you off.

If you are interested in 25 other scams used by professional thieves to steal your property, listen to our audio tape  Traveler Beware, An Undercover Cop's Guide To Avoiding Pickpockets, Luggage Theft, and Travel Scams by Detective Kevin Coffey. For Information about the book  go to our products page.  For additional information on Kevin Coffey, along with his company, Corporate Travel Safety, based in Calabasas, California, he can be reached at 818 225-1991.

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