What To Do When Your Laptop Is Stolen


stolen laptopHappy Thursday, everyone!

I had a super great post all ready for you today. It was on astroturf marketing and was in response to New York being awesome and fining Lifestyle Fit $300,000 for their extravagant use of fake reviews. You probably would have loved it. It would have earned me the industry street cred I’ve been lacking all these years. But you’ll never read it. Why?

Because my laptop was stolen out of Rae’s house last night. So now you get a different kind of post.


What to do when your laptop is stolen

Throw things, kick pillows: When you wake up and discover that the shiny blue laptop you left on the dining room table last night is, in fact, no longer on the dining room table, you’re not going to be filled with joy and rainbows. In fact, you’re going to be filled with the kind of rage and disbelief that makes you want to throw and kick things. I encourage you to embrace this. Yell a bit. Kick things that won’t hurt you and/or shatter (ie pillows). And get it all out. Once that’s done, it’s time to be a grown up and move on to number two.

Notify the police: Even though the chances of your laptop being recovered are pretty slim, you still need to file a police report. This will give you a record of what happened, may protect you from identity theft issues in the future and will also help the police monitor whether these types of thefts are on the rise. If they notice they are, they may be more inclined to step in and do something about it.

Change all your passwords: You know your Gmail password that was saved? The passwords for your online banking? The ones for all your work-related sites? Social media accounts? Yeah, they were all compromised the minute some asshat walked away with your laptop. Change them. Immediately. I was lucky that my computer was password protected, but even so, I’m now spending my morning changing everything to help protect myself from future theft. It’s actually a fun way to spend a Thursday. Right up there with getting hit in the face with a shovel.

Cancel every credit card you’ve used online: If you’ve used a credit card from your machine, call, cancel it and get a new one. Even if you think the number isn’t saved anywhere, do it anyway. Don’t take the risk. If you’re especially worried, you may also want to subscribe to some sort of identity theft protection service to make sure your personal information hasn’t been comprised in any way.

Notify clients, if affected: If you were storing any personal information for clients, access to their sites, passwords, etc, notify them immediately so that they can change. Outspoken clients can rest assured that they’re all fine and I have backups of all that data (just not my own). You’re okay. It’s me who’s going to be kicking myself for weeks.

Keep an eye on Craigslist, eBay and local pawn shops: People are awesome and criminals are dumb. Over the next few weeks, keep an eye out on Craigslist and eBay to see if anyone’s trying to sell off your stuff.

How can you protect yourself better for next time?

  • ThiefEncrypt sensitive data: Encrypting your information won’t help you retrieve it once its stolen, but it will protect it (and you) should someone get their grubby hands on your prized machine. Most computers running Windows XP will come with a built-in encryption system that owners can take advantage of. If you’re using Microsoft’s Vista Business edition, your computer has BitLocker, which will make it nearly impossible for anyone to get information off your laptop. I don’t use a Mac, but I hear they come with a pre-installed security orb that zaps you like dog breaking through an invisible fence.
  • Regular backups: As Rae once said, only you can protect yourself from data loss. I don’t regularly back up my computer (now is not the time to yell at me about this, BTW), so I’m in a bit of a pickle now that my machine is gone. I’ve lost a series of blog posts, both for Outspoken and others, there’s some client work I’ll need to make up, contacts I’ve lost, and emails I’ll have to dig out and retrieve off the server. It’s a hassle. And it would be far less of a hassle had I backed up my machine like a responsible Web user. Learn from my mistake and store your important information on an external hard drive.
  • Know your laptop’s serial number: Turns out this is really important information to have when you’re reporting a missing laptop. Naturally, I didn’t have it. My middle name is Awesome.
  • Invest in laptop tracking software: If you just lost super secret squirrel information on your laptop, maybe now’s the time to invest in some laptop tracking software like Absolute. Most computer manufacturers will offer a LoJack option at purchase. At the time I declined because I didn’t think my half-written blog posts were important enough to warrant that. I’m rethinking that decision right now.
  • Insure your laptop: Remember back when you purchased your computer and they asked if you wanted to purchase insurance with it? You’re kicking yourself now, aren’t you? Next time maybe opt for it. Additionally, your business insurance may provide coverage for lost or stolen computers. Or, if not, and the machine was stolen out of your home, your homeowners insurance will likely pick it up. Of course, that may also raise your premiums so check to make sure it’s worth it.)
  • Don’t trust someone not to unlock the front door after you locked it and told them to go to bed: Lesson learned.

Pardon me, I still have some more passwords to change.

Your Comments

  • Matt Siltala

    So sorry this had to happen to you, but on the “brightside” reading this (your humor) made me laugh, and made my day better! Again, sorry that you are having to deal with this!

  • Todd E. Jones

    Yeah, you made me laugh too. I felt horrible when I heard about the theft. Thoughts of what I would do raced through my head. Now I have a reference!

  • BarbaraKB

    Lisa, your street cred is *way up* with this post… much more than any astroturfing/WOM post. Why? Honesty with lots of great advice. Thanks!

  • kristinadee

    Instead of 1) hitting soft things, why not hit the person who unlocked the door? ;) I’m sure they feel bad enough already, but physical punishment might make you feel better than kicking a pillow that doesn’t say ‘ow’

  • Dan Yost

    A better, six-layered laptop tracking solution is MyLaptopGPS. 99.6% success rate, 300% guarantee. Hard to beat that. And, yes, I work for them (I’m CTO).

    See my blog for weekly laptop security tips. Interestingly, some of the same tips are found there–shows they work!

    Sorry to hear about your theft, but best wishes for the recovery, and thanks for this article.

    Dan Yost, CTO, MyLaptopGPS

  • Chris Molnar

    Yikes! At least you at least got a great post out of this. While nearly all criminals simply “pawn off” the laptop on Craigslist, etc, there definitely is the sort who look for gold in your data. How many times have I heard hard drives being sold on Ebay, then unwittingly being sold to id theft criminals? Good luck in trying to get it back!

  • Joe Hall

    Lisa, Sorry to hear about your laptop being stolen.

    This is a long shot, but, hear me out. If by chance you or your company manages the web analytics/tracking of a web site that you regularly visit, like say this site. And if by chance the analytics software records IP addresses (Google Analytics doesn’t). And if by chance the thief happens to visit this site by browsing your history or bookmarks. Then their IP would be recorded. All you would have to do then is focus on IP addresses around where it was stolen. This would narrow it down to a handful. Then filter out known IPs like Rae’s ectra. and bam, you have the IP/Location of said thief!

    I know there are a lot of If’s and long shots above, but it might be worth a shot!

  • Dawn Wentzell

    Since it was stolen in Guelph, add Kijiji to your list of sites to check; much more popular around here – especially with non-techies – than Craigslist is. Also check out thecannon.ca, a classified site for Guelph students.

    Good luck :(

  • Jon Buscall

    Darn, you have my sympathy. In fact, I am stressed out just reading about this.

    Hope some good karma comes your way. And soon.

  • netmeg

    Sorry this happened; I’ve been there.

    Backups – you know what? external hard drives are cheap. Get TWO. Then alternate them. I don’t know anyone in the world who has lost more hard drives (either to theft, malfunction, power surge or diet coke spillage) than I have. I’ve even lost my backup drive immediately upon losing my MAIN drive.

    For my most important machines, I actually have THREE external drives, and alternate between them. It’s as easy as taping a sticky note and jotting down the date of the backup.

    Less important computers (or data that doesn’t change as often) I will have only one external drive to back up to.

    Another tip – when I back up, I do a clone of the entire drive. Half the problem of starting all over is finding all the original install disks and installing all the programs again. If you get a new laptop, you might not get one with the same stuff. So instead of doing an image backup, just make an exact clone of your drive. I do this with Acronis. Only costs around $40 or so.

    For files that I want to have multiple copies of, I have lots of USB drives and if they’re not super secret, I also keep an offsite copy on Dropbox; you get 2gb free, and you can share folders.

    Of course, that won’t help for the loss of your astroturf post. Again sorry for your (and our) loss.

  • sallymander

    This is great advice for us all to review…I’d add that imap is the best option for email if your provider offers it. It’s far more likely that a laptop hard drive will crash (or be stolen) than your web host’s servers will.

    I’ve also found that flip flops thrown against a hollow-core door give a very satisfying sound with little to no permanent damage.

  • Stuart

    I feel guilty and you can punch me on the arm when you see me.

  • DazzlinDonna

    It usually takes more than one data loss to become a backup junkie. Hopefully, you’ll be in the “only takes one time” category. I do many redundant backups – to external hard drives and to the cloud. I never regret the few minutes it took to set it and forget it.

    Oh, and btw, I’d be looking might suspiciously at the people who live closest to that place. I’d be willing to bet it’s someone nearby who did the deed.

  • Brian L

    Backups are huge…obviously you know that now. Here’s what I do (probably overkill, but I’m pretty much never worried about data loss) –

    1. External hard drive that’s always attached to the computer – data gets backed up to this daily
    2. 3 external hard drives that I rotate in and out of a safe deposit box monthly (if you only use one or two external drives and they’re at your house, what are you going to do if the house burns down?)
    3. Important files & things that can’t be easily replaced are backed up to Amazon S3 using JungleDisk twice a day.

    If you’re on a Mac, you can use FileVault to secure your data on the local hard drive. With external disks, I use something similar to this – http://techtips.chanduonline.com/2006/08/19/mac-os-x-how-to-secure-an-external-hard-drive/

  • Dr. Pete

    Sorry to hear about that :( It’s one thing to lose a laptop, but getting something stolen out of the house is scary stuff. Thanks for the reminder to double-check my backups and make a copy of serial numbers.

    I can only assume, by the elaborate mythology I’ve created from seeing her do site reviews but never actually meeting her, that Rae is out roaming the streets hunting down the thieves, who she will eventually kill with her bare hands.

  • casie stewart

    Good tips. Had my laptop stolen a couple months ago and that was my exact course of action! Lucky for me it was the office laptop and insured ;)

  • ThompsonPaul

    Condolences on all the frustration and extra work.

    Just a quick note on having your machine password-protected. Unless you have the data actually encrypted, the password protection is negligible. As we say in IT: “If I have physical access to your machine, it ain’t your machine anymore.” Login passwords only protect you from unauthorized access over the wire. If I ‘m sitting at your machine, I can bypass the password and access your data using a boot disk in about 30 seconds.

    As you’ve correctly stated, encryption and regular (constant!)backups are a laptop user’s essential friends.


  • April

    That was a great read! Thanks for the laugh =)

  • DazzlinDonna

    Oh yeah, one other thing. Consider using free app Prey, preyproject.com, which is cross-platform (windows, mac, linux) in the future. Description of prey: “Prey helps you find your stolen laptop by sending timed reports to your email with a bunch of information of its whereabouts. This includes the general status of the computer, a list of running programs and active connections, fully-detailed network and wifi information, a screenshot of the running desktop and — in case your laptop has an integrated webcam — a picture of the thief.”

  • Marko Saric

    Ohh that sucks!

    About blog post writing: I started writing my blog posts in Evernote lately and it keeps all my writing saved online in a cloud, on any computer I use. Even better than a backup, at least for blog articles.

  • Kae Kohl

    Lisa, so sorry to hear this. Between your post and the comments on it, however, I have learned more than I thought possible about what I need to do next. I guess that’s the silver lining. Sorry the cloud is big and dark though!

  • amymengel

    That. Sucks.

    But what was absolutely awesome was your line about the MacBook security orb. Nice!

    I’m like you and not very diligent about backing up files. A good reminder to us all. Just too bad that it had to come about through such a crappy situation for you gals.

  • Shashi Kapoor

    Oh dear, sorry to hear that some crazy fool has done away with your prized machine. You missed the final steps though:
    – Quit your job to train in the art of assassination and tracking
    – Use your new skills to hunt down the thief.

  • Yawn Webmaster!

    It’s bad news when this happens. My advice is….Don’t keep personal stuff on a laptop, if you need this stuff for web access (user name and passwords) the chances are that you are going to have a web access. Use a bookmark script and hack it so you can store your personal details. Then just put it under layers and layers of security, on a domain that has never been listed and doens’t get indexed.

    Drop me on any planet with a nude laptop and an internet connection and I can acceess all my software and user accounts in the time it takes to download. Come steal my laptop..I need a new one anyway on insurance!

  • Jon Henshaw

    Using Dropbox for auto-syncing your documents and Backblaze for automatically backing up your entire drive online are data lifesavers for people who are lazy like me. Nice helpful article though. Definitely something I’m going to bookmark.

  • Anna

    Horrrible thing to happen! But it’s good that you use the experience to warn others on how to be prepared … I think I now have a new checklists of things I should do.

  • Pat Berry

    Regarding encryption options: TrueCrypt is a free, open-source application for securely encrypting your data. It’s easy to use, very effective, and uncrackable if you use a strong password. It’s available for Windows, MacOS, and Linux. (I’m not affiliated with the project in any way; I just use it and like it.)


    Netmeg: Your backup practices sound very sensible, but instead of buying individual external hard drives for each computer you own, why not buy a Drobo and back up ALL your machines to it? It uses RAID technology, so even if one of the physical drives in the Drobo fails, you don’t lose any data. (I’m not affiliated with them either.)


  • Andy

    Want to learn a new way to backup the data to S3? Try CloudBerry Backup. It is powered by Amazon S3 reliable and cost efficient storage. If you want to take part in beta sign up on the website http://cloudberrydrive.com What safer place to keep your files than Amazon’s servers?

  • Gleb Budman

    Lisa, I’m sorry about your loss and wanted to let you know you’re not alone. We found that 94% of people do not do regular backups and nearly 1 of 2 people lose data every year.

    I would like to recommend our service, Backblaze, for you and your readers. It costs just $5/month and automatically backs up all your data online (including connected external drives.) And, the key thing is, it takes just a minute to get started. Try it free: http://www.backblaze.com

    Gleb Budman
    CEO, Bakblaze

  • Jonah Stein

    Backup in the cloud!

    Extra hard drive copies are pretty cool, but nothing like having your computer remember to back up for you any time it finds a network connection!

    Carbonite.com and backblaze.com are both cheaper than extra hard drives and let you recover anytime, anywhere, even from a total disaster like a fire.

  • Nonchalant Savant

    A buddy of mine told me about a program called “Laptop Cop.” From what I understand about it, one of the key features is that if your laptop is stolen, it will notify you when the thief has logged onto the internet so that firstly you can download important files from it. Evidently it runs in the background so that the thief is unaware that this is happening. I believe it has some sort of tracking capability as well.

  • Student Laptop Security

    Lots of great advice. Laptop tracking software is definitely a smart investment. You can never be too safe these days. Check out our website for more information on how to protect your laptop at school.

  • jojocaty1990

    lolz my laptop was stolen and i was frowning for 2 weeks bcuz of that!! i din’t tell the police but i was dump enough to forget it on one of the seats of the car that drives me to and back from college.. so mine was vista home primuem do u think ther is a way to get it back? i got anew laptop and my brother is waiting for my old laptop so he can take the new one!!

  • Blackwo

    hey thanks for this blog post. My laptop and Zune were just stolen and this was helpful…

  • Mike

    I bought Laptop Cop and they remotely installed it. I attempted to use Laptop Cop but had to call for support. They have no phone support and insist on Live-Chat. I tried live-chat and they said it was busy and to try again later. I tried again and the live chat session kept crashing on their end. Had my computer been stolen it would have taken days trying to communicate the stolen computer with Laptop Cop . I asked for my money back, Laptop Cop told me how to uninstall it but Laptop Cop refused to refund my money. Laptop Cop said it was past the 3 days and didn’t care it was due to their live chat crashing.

    Laptop Cop cannot be relied upon in a crisis like a laptop being stolen.