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Published: Saturday, 2/23/2002

Protect your computer from thieves

The decreasing size of desktop and laptop computers has become a recipe for theft.

Both models are lighter and smaller than ever before. More desktops have flat panel displays, for instance. Those sleek monitors weigh just a few pounds, compared to almost 50 pounds for some standard monitors. Desktop system units, those boxes enclosing the electronic components, also are shedding weight.

The shrinking act has reduced portable computers to the size of actual school notebooks. Pocket PCs fit in the palm of a hand, and personal digital assistants, like those Palm and Handspring units, also are easy prey.

Computers are among the most frequently stolen electronic items. Millions go missing each year.

When thieves take something else, you lose the merchandise. That's bad enough. But when the theft involves a computer, you lose information and the time spent accumulating it.

Corporate theft victims may lose trade secrets and other business information worth hundreds of times the computer's price. Thieves also can lay their hands on personal information stored in the computer, including letters, e-mail, credit card numbers, user IDs, and passwords for financial accounts. That information can be used in all kinds of financial fraud.

Desktop computer owners should take all the usual precautions, such as locking doors and windows, to keep their home or office secure.

Laptop and notebook owners, including students living in dormitories, should take special precautions. Store the laptop in a locked drawer or cabinet. Use a security cable when leaving the computer unattended in the open.

Travel with the unit in a standard briefcase or backpack, rather than a computer carrying case. That case may mark you as a potential target for a thief, who will stalk and wait for a chance to strike. Set it down for an instant to make a phone call, and a thief may sweep it up and disappear in the crowd.

The hubbub around airport security checkpoints makes them a high-risk area for laptop thefts. Never let the laptop out of your sight.

Keep a record of each computer's make, model, and serial number. If a theft occurs, you'll need that information to file a report with the police and use an online tracking system like the Stolen Computer Registry. Formed in 1992 by a computer industry consortium, the registry (www.stolencomputers.org) serves as a no-fee central clearinghouse for victims of computer theft.

Victims of computer theft enter the make, model, and serial number in the database. Police and other law enforcement professionals often check the database when they recover a computer. Potential buyers of used computers also can check the registry to see if a unit has been reported stolen.

Consider other advance preparations for possible computer theft, such as using a service like CyberAngel (www.sentryinc.com). This service includes a program that reports via the Internet any unauthorized use of a computer to the company's security monitoring center. The center then alerts the owner. If the computer uses a dialup connection, CyberAngel turns off the modem so no dialing sound is apparent.

The security center uses information from the report to identify the computer's location, including the phone number and name of the person or company associated with the address.

CyberAngel then locks the computer's communication ports (to prevent unauthorized use of online banking and other information). It also blocks access to data on the hard disk that the owner has designated as sensitive.

Search the Internet for similar services and compare several before you subscribe.

Michael Woods is the Blade's science editor. His column on computers and technology appears each Saturday. Email him at mwoods@theblade.com.



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