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May 2002, Week 1 -- Laptops Lost and Found

    

 

  Anti-Theft System

 

 

   Laptop theft is running over half a million units a year. Their $2,000-$3,000 value makes them a highly attractive target. That's just the computer; the loss of the contents can be much more costly to the owner. Two new systems offer relatively low-cost protection.

A moving target

   One way to protect a laptop is with a motion detector. This is a direct physical approach: if the computer is moved it cries out, with a high-pitched whine in this case.

   The device is the $99 "Caveo" www.caveo.com, a normal looking PCMCIA card -- one of those accessory cards that slide into a slot in the side of nearly all laptops. It guards against movement beyond a preset radius.

   This is really high-tech and ingenious. Because the card has its own motion sensor and battery it works whether the computer is on or not. It contains a high-pitched alarm that goes off if the computer is moved out of a designated circle. That circle can be set with the accompanying software and can be anywhere from a few feet to a hundred or more.

 

   If the computer is turned off when you want to leave it for a while, and you don't want to have to restart to set the alarm again, you can set it by tilting the laptop in a prearranged series of motions. I know that sounds weird but it works. Should you need to turn off the alarm -- like after catching someone who tried to walk off with your laptop -- tilting it in the proper sequence again will turn off the noise.

 

   Defeating the system is unfortunately quite simple: the thief can simply eject the PCMCIA card before leaving with the computer. Of course that would have to be a very knowledgeable thief. Anyone really concerned about laptop theft should probably use two systems: a motion sensor and a "phone home" approach outlined below.

 

The PC phones home

   The title of "PCPhoneHome" ($30 a year for PC or Mac) aptly states the approach. It is one of several programs that automatically dial their maker's number or a number you select, whenever the laptop is connected to the Internet. Web: www.pcphonehome.com

   This process is invisible to the user -- in this case it's presumably the thief -- and provides the name of their Internet service provider and their originating phone number. The Internet service provider can also be notified and should provide the name of the person holding that dial-up account.

 

   It then becomes simply a matter of notifying your own police department that your laptop has been stolen and is being used by someone at the following phone number. You may even be able to provide a name and address. Your police department can notify the police department at the thief's location, anywhere in the world, and an arrest or search warrant obtained. These stealth identification programs differ slightly, so if you're interested you should go to their web sites and look over the features.

laptrak

   -- "Absolute Track," from Absolute Software www.absolute.com, for example, is $20 a year for Windows laptops and monitors all Internet use along with collecting the originating phone numbers if the computer is reported to them as stolen.

-- "Laptrak" www.laptrak.com  costs $36.50 a year and secretly sends the originating phone number to a 24-hour monitoring station. If the machine is reported stolen, the operators there can determine where the new originating number is located. Any sensitive information on the machine can be locked away into a hidden file by the rightful owner when the software is first installed.

 

-- "Mobile Secure" from Lucira www.lucira.com. The cost is $49 a year and the service includes encryption for sensitive material in the computer as well as tracking its new location.

 

-- "CyberAngel" is from Sentry www.sentryinc.com  and the cost is $60 for one year, $90 for two years. The service alerts the laptop owner to any use from an unauthorized phone number and then sends back a series of commands that lock the computer's communication ports to keep it from any further online access.

 

-- "zTrace" www.ztrace.com  costs $50 per year and tracks the originating location for all Internet access calls.

 

A wonderful little utility

 System Mechanic

   Iolo's www.iolo.com  new "System Mechanic 3.6" corrects two problems that drive Windows users nuts.

   The first is that it alphabetizes the program list in the Start menu. As almost all Windows users are aware, though the initial list of programs comes in alphabetical order, new programs go to the bottom of the list -- in no order. After a while, it can be pretty frustrating to find anything.

   The second helpful task is that it allows you to control what is loaded at startup. Experienced users already know how to do this, but many new users do not, and it slows their system, causes conflicts with other programs and throws people into a computer destroying frenzy. I sympathize.

 

   These are minor functions of System Mechanic, by the way, but heart-warming. The main ones of cleaning the registry, deleting orphaned files, emptying the trash and temp files,  etc., remain. It has a safe installer to report changes made to the system when a new program is installed and a shredder that makes sensitive deleted files unrecoverable. System Mechanic is $60 for all versions of Windows.

 

NOTE: Readers can search nearly four years of columns at the "On Computers" web site: www.oncomp.com. You can e-mail Bob Schwabach at bobschwab@oncomp.com or bobschwab@aol.com.