Help me destroy my laptop!
September 6, 2005 5:21 AM   Subscribe

Have any creative suggestions/strategies for theft proofing laptops...

I'm facing a lot of travel, soon, and I've got a very nice laptop that I'd like to prevent from being stolen. One avenue for doing this would be making it as undesirable to the thief as possible.

I'm looking for suggestions on how to theft-proof the thing, the only limit to which is the actual destruction of the unit or its functionality. I'm not at all concerned about resale value. So if you think covering it in pink faux fur or real cowhide will help, feel free to suggest that.

Your suggestion could also aid recovery. I'm already planning on disassembling it and scribing my name and contact info on inside surfaces.

Other schemes to protect stuff like this are welcome, I liked Regine's bag a lot. I've also thought about covering it in stickers. Obviously, I won't be carrying it around in a laptop bag, but other suggestions in this realm would be welcome.
posted by fake to Travel & Transportation (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You'd be better off insuring it and setting up a remote backup facility. Sorry if that's not helpful.
posted by ascullion at 6:04 AM on September 6, 2005

For recovery, you could look into programs like Computrace LoJack. It sends a signal to a recovery team via the Internet when your laptop is stolen. Forbes did a review on how well it works.

As for other tips... Don't carry it in a bag that is obviously a laptop bag, and never leave it in your hotel room.
posted by geeky at 6:21 AM on September 6, 2005

Also, make sure that you have set your computer to require a password to start and to awake from a screen saver (and set the screen saver to come on somewhat frequently). If you use a Mac, I would suggest keeping your important files in a password protected disk image. Not sure what you can do if you are using windows. I would not use any type of disk encryption, like file vault on the Mac. The problem with those is if there is any file corruption, you could lose access to your entire disk.

There are also utilities that you can install on a computer that will email (at predefined intervals) the IP of the current connection, in case it gets stolen and used "as is". Won't work if they reformat the whole thing.

I would second the suggestion to make remote back-ups and insure it. Laptops are way to easy to have taken.
posted by qwip at 6:29 AM on September 6, 2005

Response by poster: "You'd be better off insuring it and setting up a remote backup facility. Sorry if that's not helpful."

Right, that's not helpful at all. I've got those things covered, like anyone who's genuinely concerned about the safety of their data. I'm looking for suggestions on how to make the physical laptop less desirable/detectable to thieves, and that has nothing to do with insurance or backups.

I can't wait to hear some suggestions on how to theft-proof the physical device, though!
posted by fake at 6:32 AM on September 6, 2005

I've heard that there's a pc card alarm much like a car alarm. It sounds if the laptop is moved and the password is not entered within a few seconds. And of course there are cable locks. You could try and make it not look desirable, but someone may take it even if it only looks like it might be worth $10. But some duct tape, maybe a sticker off an old computer that says "pentium 100mhz, windows 95, 200mb hardrive", asian symbol keyboard, temporarily remove some keys that you never use, an orange sticker that says "Bad LCD, Parts only". You may want to keep in mind that you don't want to make it look too suspicious if you are going through airport security. Also, I like to make my bags easily identifible, I hear that thiefs sometimes like to get a generic bag and switch when you are standing in line, so I like to put a ribbon on my handle or some reflective tape.
posted by 445supermag at 7:17 AM on September 6, 2005

put a Pentium Pro sticker on it... and a 16Mb RAM sticker on it...
posted by vincentm at 7:22 AM on September 6, 2005

Make it look like something else when it's closed. A book, for example, or a pizza box -- something that a roving eye will pass over without paying closer attention.
posted by aramaic at 7:33 AM on September 6, 2005

I've tested the alarms: they're not useful. The slightest breeze sets them off. Deceptive equipment stickers are also going to be relatively ineffective: a fair portion of the element that might try to steal your laptop has no idea if "pentium 100" is good, bad, or worth thousands of dollars. And won't care.

Your best bet is disguise. It should only look like a laptop when it's on your lap, otherwise it should look like a backpack full of junk.
posted by majick at 7:35 AM on September 6, 2005

Pink fur and stickers aren't going to help; the snatch & grab scum you're worried about aren't discriminating based on how valuable something looks, they're only using the criteria "can I get away with it." They might pass your thing up for something else that's more valuable looking and just as available but if they're in a room where they can pick it up and walk, they're gonna take it even if it looks like the bastard child of some bunny slippers and a toaster.

If it's a laptop with the kensington slot built in you should pick up a cable so you can shackle it to something when its in your room alone. It's defeatable but you're looking to bypass the casual grab and be the less attractive option, a la The Club for your car. Both can be cut off but that takes time.
posted by phearlez at 8:36 AM on September 6, 2005

Paste on a fake book cover in heavy cardboard, like "Pat Robertson's Guide to the True Interpretation of the Bible". Fix it so that the edges can be camouflaged with what looks like the real edge of a book. If you do it correctly with glossy photo paper on an ink jet printer it willl look realistic. I guarantee people will return it to you if you accidentally misplace it.
posted by JJ86 at 9:14 AM on September 6, 2005 [1 favorite]

If you have a metal-cased laptop, you could look at getting something like this done... possibly adding in some text saying 'Please contact (your name) at (your email address) if found.'

That should do a job on the ebay value.
posted by mosch at 11:54 AM on September 6, 2005

Crappy suggestion, but I figure the more the merrier: Many laptops have easily removeable keyboards (I think mine can be removed and replaced without tools, but I haven't tried). So you could take the keyboard off a bit like car stereos have removeable faceplates.

This would be especially useful if your laptop is a tablet-pc - you don't even need the keyboard to operate it, but the theif doesn't know that :-)
posted by -harlequin- at 12:26 PM on September 6, 2005

Slightly Better suggestion:
There are cheap-ass key-chain alarms that work by a base-station that indicates whenever the fob is taken out of radio range (about 30-50 feet). Messily Duct-tape the fob to the laptop, and have the base-station in your pocket.

Another crappy suggestion:
Buy a $20 cellphone, duct tape it to the laptop. Some thefts operate on the principle that once the goods are in the theif's bag, they can't be spotted. Ringing the cellphone would make an alarm. (There are devices designed to do this, but they cost upwards of $30 and the range is in feet instead of hundreds of miles like a cellphone).

Aren't there cellphones for parents to give their kids these days, that will send the parent the location of the cellphone? That would be even better. You'd probably want to disguise it as something other than a cellphone though - put a note saying "spare USB cable" on top of the duct tape or something :)
posted by -harlequin- at 12:38 PM on September 6, 2005

What about taping an old sheet of paper on it that says in large handwriting "Does not power up - sold AS-IS! $15" with the letterhead saying "Goodwill Thrift Store"
posted by -harlequin- at 12:41 PM on September 6, 2005

I carry stuff like this in a backpack beat up nylon backpack. The backpack is the everyman bag. While they do get stolen sometimes, they are not immediately inviting, as they are just as likely to contain socks and textbooks as something expensive. Preferably a light green or brown, so that grease and dirt stains will be visible.

My second choice, for something more accesable would be a briefcase, with cardboard glued on the outside, and a string handle run through two holes drilled in the case.

Doing a good book mock-up job is perhaps not a bad idea.

As for the laptop itself, a clamshell cover, or strips of steel or aluminum contact cemented to the cover with a padlock would make it look a little less inviting.

You could also get very light gauge steel, rust it with some salt-water, and then paint the remaining exposed areas, it will look very very crappy.

Stickers are no good, from experience. You can't convince anyone that a laptop is not worth stealing, because it is. They could always lie to someone and try to sell it, or turn it around for $10, it's best that they not even know it's a computer.

I'm just kind of brainstorming here.. but along with gluing on solid stuff, you could adhere fabric. If you took a couple sheets of distressed fabrics, sheets, canvas, muslin, and loosely sewed or glued them together into two squares.. you could then glue one square to each side of the laptop, with a border. Sew some velcro to the interior edges of the borders, and they'd keep the metal edge from showing, so it could end up looking like a folded up drop-cloth or something.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 1:09 PM on September 6, 2005

Here's the thing about this question: it really depends on where you're going. And it depends on where you're going because it depends on exactly which situations your laptop is most vulnerable.

Here's my top 5 and what you might want to do about each one...

1. Airport screening lines (especially out of the US) : Put the computer in as junky a bag as possible (inside of a sleeve tho). I'm thinking of diaper bag, or a grubby backpack, or even a sturdy shopping bag. Cover with some unfolded clothes and you're good. Security through obscurity.

2. Hotels: Don't leave your laptop unattended in any but the best hotels. The end. I don't think that securing your laptop to a pipe in a Thai hotel would buy you much of anything, other than to force you to have the computer out so that it could be discovered more easily.

3. Out and About: When you're using the computer at an internet cafe, or in a park, or wherever, the best bet is a big ugly stripe of duct tape / gaffers tape / packing tape on the back of the lid/LCD. I'd make it look like the screen bezel is broken, either at the top or at the bottom, or heck, both. I'd also wrap the power supply cord, or the brick, in tape. Making your computer look as old, junky, and worthless as possible is your best bet.

4. In the US: The most valuable part of your laptop, hardware-wise is the LCD. So making it look gunked up, or kinda broken, would deter some theievs. The problem is that it would have to be noticeable even if the machine were off, and if you were gonna swipe a laptop, you might not inspect it all that much (or at all). But maybe a screen protector that had a sharpie line that passed for a crack would help.

5. Outside the US: Outside the US, it doesn't matter what it looks like really. If a thief sees that you've got a laptop, you're basically hosed. Resale value for him is not dependent on the stickers on the back, or the faux fur, or the annoying engraving. So all of that is a waste of money (IMO). I gues that leaving out the optical drive and leaving the gaping hole might help. But even then I think your best best is camoflage, not defacing.
posted by zpousman at 1:21 PM on September 6, 2005

Laptops have a special slot for a laptop lock. It's a cable with a locking end that fits the slot. It will discourage "grab & run" theft if the laptop is secured to some other permanent or bulky object. It only works when you use it - thieves are good at grabbing laptops while users are inattentive.
posted by theora55 at 2:11 PM on September 6, 2005

Or, get 2 or more old IBM thinkpads, or similar sturdy, repairable lowend laptops. Keep the hard drive separate when not in use. If it's stolen, use the backup, or buy another. For travel in high-theft areas, that would be (part of) my strategy. There are a lot of old IBM tpads still in action, including the one I'm using right now(I'm soaking in it).
posted by theora55 at 2:21 PM on September 6, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks all! Great ideas!

... As I'll be in Russia for the better part of this question, it's looking like bag camouflage is the best option. . . combined with insurance, backups, rusted metal, engraving, and so on.. ;)

Also really enjoyed JK's idea about a metal clamshell... which could then be rusted.

And thanks majick, for the word on hardware alarms.
posted by fake at 2:33 PM on September 6, 2005

zpousman: I'm not sure how your airport screening line idea is supposed to work, given that they make you send your laptop through seperate from the bag it was in.
posted by mosch at 2:59 PM on September 6, 2005

The best way to avoid the laptop getting stolen is not by using any camouflage or theft alarm, etc. You just have to not be stupid enough to leave it out of your sight. Russia isn't any less safe for laptops than Berlin, New York, or Bumfuck Idaho. Honestly, the airports in Russia are fine for carry-on luggage. As with any airport, checked luggage is probably going to get rifled through. Use common sense when carrying your valuables around anywhere and you will never get ripped off. Always be extra aware of your surroundings when moving around unfamiliar areas and don't trust anyone.
posted by JJ86 at 2:30 AM on September 8, 2005

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