HACKENSACK, N.J. – The rise in laptop use, increased thefts and tightening of internal corporate controls have led companies to look for ways to safeguard their machines and boost the chances of getting them back.
In recent weeks, several laptops were stolen in Bergen County, N.J., – one from a large business and another from a high school.
Most stolen computers are never found, but these machines were recovered "with the help of (software) programs that traced their location," said Bergen County Detective Sgt. Andrew Donofrio, who heads the county prosecutor’s computer crimes unit.
He could not release further details as investigations into the two crimes are ongoing, but said the software installed on the laptops was instrumental in pinpointing the stolen goods.
There are a number of programs on the market that work by tracking a stolen laptop using a series of cyber-based clues coupled with old-fashioned police work.
Among the top sellers are CyberAngel, Absolute Software (which partnered with the car recovery system LoJack in 2005 in a branding agreement to sell Computrace LoJack for Laptops) and PC Phone Home.
Like others, CyberAngel’s tracking software is loaded onto the computer’s hard drive, hidden from view. If the laptop is stolen, and the thief – or more likely a third party who buys the laptop – attempts to enter any of several password-protected areas of the laptop, it "trips an alarm," explained Bradley Lide, president of the Tennessee company.
When the computer connects with the Internet, it sends a signal to CyberAngel’s call center. The CyberAngel folks can see the stolen laptop’s current phone number or IP address, which contains information such as the name of the ISP being used (Optimum, Verizon DSL, RoadRunner, etc.) and the city where the server connecting the wayward computer is located.
Presumably, if your laptop has been ripped off, you’ve already notified the local police and filed a report.
CyberAngel, which has established relationships with many ISP legal departments, works with a local law enforcement agency to speed filing of a subpoena to obtain the name and street address associated with the IP address being used by the stolen computer. Once law enforcement officials have that name and address, they have a chance of recovering the computer, as they did in the two recent Bergen County cases.
Stolen computers are often found in the hands of people who unwittingly bought them from small-time criminals who typically sell them for $300 to $400, explained Lide.
Many thefts are internal, and often companies are unwilling to report the crime and risk public scrutiny.
"A lot of people don’t ‘raise their hands’" to report a crime, said Lide. "There are internal theft issues out there that corporate America has to deal with."
CyberAngel also has the ability to track a computer using a wireless Wi-Fi connection within 30 feet.
Lide said CyberAngel developed the technology to avoid scenarios where a stolen laptop might be surfing on an open, unsecured Wi-Fi network nearby owned by someone who has no idea the laptop in question is even using the wireless connection.
The pinpointing technology helps avoid scenarios where police knock on the wrong door.
So how effective are these programs?
According to security experts, they work well but aren’t perfect.
"They can be defeated," says Bruce Schneier, author of "Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly about Security in an Uncertain World" (Copernicus Books, 2003). "But they are based on the assumption that the average laptop thief isn’t a computer hacker."
And there does appear to be a smash-and-grab aspect to many of these thefts, experts say.
In one recent case in San Francisco, a man was stabbed in the chest for his Apple Powerbook as he sat in a coffee shop.
Many of the companies also sell data encryption programs to protect any information stored on a machine. ("The laptop gets stolen and it’s lost for a week and then recovered, but what’s happened to that data in the interim?" Donofrio points out.)
Companies can save money if their insurers offer a discount when software like CyberAngel is installed.
One of the larger computer insurers, Safeware Insurance of Columbus, Ohio, said it does offer a percentage discount and works with software vendors such as Absolute.
Programs like Absolute Software and CyberAngel won’t stop a determined thief, but they can give you a fighting chance to get your laptop back.
SOFTWARE-TRACKING WEB SITES
Prices range from $29.95 to $149.
© 2006, North Jersey Media Group Inc.
Visit The Record Online at http://www.northjersey.com/
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.