Come Back, Little iMac

Protect your gadgets before they get lost or stolen

By Larry Armstrong

It's hard enough to keep track of your own cell phone, laptop, and electronic organizer-such gadgets are easy to lose, and make tempting targets for the unscrupulous. Multiply that headache by a hefty number of employees outfitted with similar electronics, and you've got a logistics nightmare. Even if costs weren't an issue, the hassle factor is. Who wants to spend days replacing missing devices, canceling and restarting wireless services, and rebuilding phone books, documents, and presentations that weren't backed up?

So before that laptop goes AWOL or that BlackBerry slips between airline seats, consider raising the odds that your lost stuff will find its way back to you. You can start with cheap and easy tactics, such as making sure gadgets are labeled with your name and phone number in the hopes that a good citizen will return them. Or consider a relatively expensive strategy, and sign up for specialized insurance that will replace lost or stolen items and repair damaged ones.

As smart as it is to mark your belongings the way your mother did when you went to summer camp, you can do better when it comes to labeling your digital devices. Loss-recovery services such as StuffBak sell bright metallic tags and adhesive labels for about two bucks each. They're marked with your unique owner code, a toll-free phone number, and the magic words "Reward for Return!"

After you affix the stickers, you register your equipment on StuffBak's Web site. If someone finds your gear and calls StuffBak, you'll pay $14.95 plus shipping charges to get it back. StuffBak's reward is just a pack of their stickers, so it's a good idea to offer your own cash reward. You can specify the amount when you register your gear. StuffBak claims that three-quarters of all lost items marked with its stickers eventually are recovered. Rivals Trackitback and BoomerangIt sell a similar service.

As good as these defenses are, they're not likely to deter a thief. For that, there are tracking services such as Stealth Signal. Think of it as LoJack for laptops: Software hidden on your computer calls in with its whereabouts daily. Once you report your computer stolen, you'll have to hope someone plugs it into an Internet port or phone line. Then the software will be able to send out information enabling the local police to track it to a physical address. Similar tracking products include zTrace, Computrace, and CyberAngel, but Stealth Signal, at $49 a year, works with both Macs and PCs and can sneak through most firewalls.

Alternatively, you could insure your company's laptops against theft. They're probably covered by your business owner's policy, but the high deductible usually makes filing claims for a single laptop a waste of time. The most popular policy, from Safeware, starts at $69 a year with no deductible, or $52 per year for each of 10 or more machines with $100 deductibles. A big plus: It covers accidental damage should you drop your computer or spill coffee on it.

If there's a downside to these methods of securing your stuff, it's this: None of them work if you don't take the time to set them up.

Larry Armstrong writes about personal technology for BusinessWeek magazine

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