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Watch out! There are laptop thieves about

Many thousands of laptops vanish in the UK every year. So what can you do to ensure you don't become the next target?

A few weeks ago, a burglar made his way into Jerry Hall's Richmond Hill home and made off with her notebook computer, while the actress was performing in a play in central London.

A few weeks ago, a burglar made his way into Jerry Hall's Richmond Hill home and made off with her notebook computer, while the actress was performing in a play in central London.

But the best performance in connection with a laptop computer theft probably occurred a few weeks earlier, when the laptop computer of Irwin Jacobs went walkies. Mr Jacobs is the chief executive officer of Qualcomm, a major American hi-tech company.

Using his laptop, Mr Jacobs had given a presentation at a conference. The theft occurred moments after he left the podium to mingle with the audience. Whoever the thief was, he or she blended in, giving a convincing performance as an ordinary member of the audience or hotel staff.

But was the theft a garden variety laptop heist by someone interested in nothing more than a piece of pricey hardware, or was it corporate espionage? Mr Jacobs' computer contained sensitive proprietary information. In fact, it contained several years' worth of information.

Because of his elevated position, Mr Jacobs may have been a target rather than a random victim. Corporate spying is alive and well, and bounties have been placed on laptops belonging to top executives. Even without a bounty, ordinary laptops of ordinary middle managers contain valuable information - or are suspected of doing so.

No laptop is off-limits, so nobody is off the hook. Many thousands of laptop computers vanish in the UK every year. In the US, the commonly cited figure is 300,000 annually.

More often than not, the value of the hardware is less important than the loss of the data. Confidential corporate data including share-sensitive information can get into the wrong hands, harming your company's competitiveness and wreaking havoc on the share price.

Considerable time and expense may be needed to re-compile data and reinstate it to the replacement computer. Many people keep personal letters and other private matters on their business laptops, including bank, share dealing, tax, accounting and other financial information. Even if the data is backed up, embarrassing and even incriminating information can get into the wrong hands.

"Depending on company policy, it can even be a sackable offence if your laptop is stolen and it contains sensitive material that should not have been in the machine," says David Gamble, executive director of the Association of Insurance and Risk Managers (AIRMIC).

No discussion of laptop computer theft is complete without including the circus elements of the problem. Many people absentmindedly leave their laptops behind, in taxis, on trains, in pubs and restaurants.

We also let important data escape into the ether. "I often overhear people discussing contracts and other sensitive issues on mobile phones in public places," says Mr Gamble. "And I am similarly amazed at how often I see people working with notebook computers in places like airplanes where they can easily be overlooked."

The first line of defence, then, is to realise the importance of protecting data as well as protecting the hardware. Shield the data behind a simple password and also with encryption. Such barriers will deter many thieves, and even if they go to the trouble of decoding your data, you can buy valuable time.

Other defensive measures depend on the importance of the data, and how much time and expense you will part with. Some CEOs travel with minders whose job is to constantly watch the computer, not the executive. More typically and sensibly, many of us keep excess data on our laptops which we should simply download or discard.

Just as importantly, we should appreciate and anticipate our various vulnerabilities.

Some underground stations and all airport and train terminals are high risk areas. Different cities and locations pose different kinds and levels of risk. Because of its proximity to inner city residential neighbourhoods, Birmingham's commercial centre, for example, is more susceptible to notebook snatches and other forms of street theft than the City of London.

On the other hand, thieves find plenty of easy pickings in the City and West End from offices during working hours, and pubs and restaurants after work. You and your computer case may make it safely onto your train at Waterloo, Victoria or Euston, but more than a few weary commuters have been caught utterly by surprise when they are pounced upon after arriving at their home station.

We need new attitudes and some of us would benefit from one or more new and occasionally ingenious gizmos.

On the attitude side, never allow yourself to be lulled into a sense of false security. This means keeping your computer on your lap or between your legs rather than on the overhead luggage rack. And if you are travelling alone, take it with you to the loo or whenever you leave your seat. These precepts apply to airplanes as well as trains. If you are going to the boozer after work, leave your notebook in the office. You are not going to get much work done that evening anyway.

In the UK, Fellowes is one of several companies that sell a wide range of cable locks and motion alarm systems priced between £25 and £50. An American company has recently come up with an important variation on the cable lock theme (see box). If you insist on working in airplanes and other public places, 3M makes a Notebook Privacy Filter which clips to your screen and restricts viewing to full frontal. Anyone not on the straight and narrow will be thwarted.