How to: Protect your devices from theft

How to: Protect your devices from theft

Don’t be a victim of opportunist crime. Mike Bedford investigates how best to keep your laptops, tablets and smartphones out of the wrong hands.

L aptops, smartphones and tablets are terrifically useful tools – but they’re also valuable items that attract thieves. On these pages, we’ll consider two approaches to reducing your risk of being a victim of theft. First, we’ll advise on how small behavioural changes will lead to greater safety of your mobile devices. Then we’ll investigate the various types of anti-theft products aimed at this sort of equipment, and examine the pros and cons of each. If the worst does happen, we’ll also examine what is and isn’t covered on standard insurance policies – and whether there’s any benefit to taking out a specialised policy intended for this type of device.

Much of the advice given here is with the business user in mind, but that’s only because they arguably have more to lose; it’s perfectly applicable to personal use too.

What do you have to lose?
In order to make informed decisions, it’s important to consider the potential cost of a theft. Most obvious is that of replacing the stolen hardware; you might hope and expect that this will be covered by insurance, but there are excesses and exclusions to consider – and, as we’ll see later, there’s even the possibility that equipment you thought was covered by your insurance policy isn’t actually protected outside of your home or office. Given that a smartphone can cost more than $1,000, and a top-end laptop aimed at the business user around $2,500 or more, these are losses that can’t simply be ignored.

Significant as these costs might be, they pale in comparison to the less tangible potential losses, especially for business users. First among these is the cost of losing data stored on your stolen device. As a business, you have a legal obligation to keep customer data secure, so if that data is stored unencrypted on a laptop that’s stolen, you could face legal consequences. 

Even if you’re in the clear legally, there’s the possibility of consequential losses resulting from sensitive data falling into the wrong hands. There’s also the productivity cost of lost information to consider: while it’s great to have a regime of backing up data on a desktop PC, on removable storage, or in the cloud, this doesn’t always negate the loss. There’s a limit to how frequently it’s viable to back up, so there’s always a risk of losing a day’s work, or the valuable information gleaned in the meeting you’ve just walked out of.
Consequential losses go beyond the loss of data too. In business, time is money, so if the loss of your laptop means you’re unable to work effectively until it’s replaced, that could represent a considerable cost to your business. If those days of reduced productivity happen to fall within a business trip abroad, there’s the cost of wasted flights and accommodation to add to the ever-growing tally. Finally, but no less importantly, don’t forget that someone stealing your phone can rack up a huge bill if you don’t promptly report it to your network operator as stolen.

Behavioural changes
You can do a lot to protect your devices from theft simply by making some minor behavioural changes. Some are common sense, but may be easily forgotten in the business of everyday life. Others might be ones you may never have considered.

One of the simplest but most effective ways to reduce the risk of theft is to avoid advertising your kit to potential burglars. If you really must leave anything unattended in a vehicle, put it in the boot, rather than on display on the passenger seat. If you’re walking down the street, there’s no reason to have your phone in your hand. The few seconds it will take to remove it from a pocket or handbag as needed isn’t going to result in many missed calls – and the maxim “out of sight, out of mind” certainly applies from the perspective of the would-be thief. 

It might seem more difficult to conceal a laptop when you’re out and about, but one possible measure that’s been recommended to us by a police crime-prevention officer involves carrying it in a scruffy supermarket carrier bag, rather than in a posh case. After all, who would ever suspect a carrier bag contained an expensive laptop? If you can’t bring yourself to degrade your laptop in that way, at least buy a laptop backpack. It’s much harder for a thief to rip one of these off your back – especially if you choose one with a waist strap – than it would be to wrest a conventional case from your hand.

If you can’t disguise the fact that you’re carrying expensive electronic equipment, make sure it’s always in sight. Most people wouldn’t dream of leaving a laptop unattended on a bus or train, but it’s an all-too-common sight on intercity trains. You might feel a little neurotic carrying it around with you to the onboard shop or to the toilet, but that scenario is better than having to admit to your boss that you’ve had a laptop stolen. 

Even if your equipment stays in view at all times, it’s a good idea to make it as difficult as possible for a potential thief to approach you unnoticed, so that an opportunist can’t snatch your hardware and sprint off. Sometimes it’s necessary to work in public environments, which isn’t ideal, but if you do have to set up office in a busy coffee shop, try to sit with your back to the wall or, better still, in a corner. 

Identification markings
Anti-theft hardware comes in a variety of forms: some products aim to discourage criminals from attempting to steal your equipment, while others aim to make it difficult for them to do so; some even sound an alarm if they try. There are also products that aim to help you recover your possessions if they’re stolen; then you’re into damage-limitation territory. Your data, at the very least, is still at risk unless you’ve enforced encryption.
When it comes to discouraging thieves, the normal method is to mark your equipment in some way. Since this identifies the equipment as yours, it becomes much harder for a thief to sell it on – and they won’t want to have it hanging around, since it could be incriminating. 

One popular product in this category is SmartWater (, which you simply paint onto your kit. Its presence can be detected by the police using an ultraviolet light and, if an item is shown to be marked in this way, it can be analysed by the manufacturer to discover its precise chemical formulation. Since every customer is sent a unique batch of SmartWater, this positively identifies the owner of the equipment. SmartWater itself isn’t normally visible, so it’s supplied with warning labels that you stick onto your equipment.
Simpler approaches include identification stickers that attach using strong adhesive, which is impossible to remove without leaving telltale signs. You can also obtain kits containing stencils and specially formulated ink that etch an identification code into the body of the equipment. Some products mark the equipment with a name and postcode (such as; others apply a unique serial number that is associated with the owner in a database. The advantage of this approach is that it needn’t reduce the secondhand value of the equipment, since the new owner can be registered in the database. Depending on how conspicuously you want to mark your device, these codes can be placed unobtrusively on the bottom of a laptop; there’s more reticence to place these on phones, but products with smaller text are certainly available.

Physical locks and alarms
Most laptops have a Kensington lock slot – a connector named after the laptop security company that, for more than 20 years, has made steel cables that secure the computer to some immovable object. Tablets and smartphones rarely have security sockets, but cases with a Kensington slot are available for some tablets, as are Kensington slot anchors that can be attached to such devices using extra-strong adhesive. 

Other cable-based security solutions, such as the Lock Alarm Mini, use a thinner cable and sound an alarm if anyone tampers with or cuts through the cable. The Mobile Laptop Alarm NB-3500p from Trust works along similar lines, but using wireless technology: a tag is attached to the laptop, and you place the corresponding key fob in your pocket. If the tag is separated from the key fob by 5m or more, the alarm sounds. 

For smartphones and tablets, it’s also possible to obtain key fobs that track the devices using their built-in Bluetooth connection, so you don’t need a separate tag – see, for example, the Kensington Proximo Key Fob Bluetooth Tracker. These devices won’t prevent a thief from grabbing your laptop or phone in the first place, but it’s unwise to rely on only a single means of protection, and alarms can make a useful addition to the mix.

Strictly speaking, insurance isn’t about preventing theft, but mitigating its impact. However, part of protecting yourself against the risk of theft is ensuring that your equipment is covered. We spoke to the Insurance Brokers’ Association, which provided the following advice.

First, don’t assume that equipment will be covered under either your home contents or business policy when it’s away from those places. Some contents insurance policies can be extended to cover this, but do check first. If you use your own personal equipment for work, it too may not be covered under your home contents insurance, although it may be protected under your employer’s policy. 

Most policies also won’t cover you if you leave your property for a long time, usually around 30 days in a row. The bottom line is, if you’ve taken out a standard policy and haven’t checked what’s covered, you’re setting yourself up for a nasty surprise. 
You should also be aware that most insurers impose a single-item limit – a maximum amount they’ll pay for any individual item, regardless of its value. If that’s a problem, you may be able to take out a specialised gadget insurance policy, covering more expensive single items and offering quick replacements for important portable items. 

Finally, most standard business insurance policies won’t cover the loss of data and productivity, although specialist policies exist that will cover these losses as part of business interruption. You should speak to a broker so they can find a policy that covers their needs. 

This feature appeared in the May 2015 issue of PC & Tech Authority Magazine
Copyright © PC & Tech Authority, nextmedia Pty Ltd Copyright © Alphr, Dennis Publishing

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