Wednesday, 25 May 2016

‘What I wish I’d done’ before my laptop was stolen

‘What I wish I’d done’ before my laptop was stolen

Having your laptop stolen is an appalling experience, especially if you haven’t prepared for the worst. After finding out the hard way, Jane Hoskyn explains how to limit the damage

A few weeks ago, someone walked into my house one Saturday morning while I dozed in bed, then walked out with my Windows 8.1 laptop and my wallet.

I did hear footsteps while half-asleep, but thought it must be my housemate getting ready for work. “Hey, is that you?” I shouted, peering downstairs. Silence. Nothing. So I resumed my doze and assumed I’d been dreaming.

It took nearly two days to realise we’d been burgled. I couldn’t find my wallet, but thought I might have left it in a shop somewhere. When I checked my bank account that evening I discovered that someone had tried to use my card for a contactless payment.

The next evening, my housemate and I sat down to watch BBC iPlayer via my laptop, which I always kept plugged into the TV. But the laptop wasn’t there. “Have you been using it?” asked my housemate. “No, have you?” I asked. That’s when the awful, stomach-churning truth hit me. My wallet, the laptop... I hadn’t dreamt those footsteps at all. We’d been burgled and I’d done nothing to deny the criminals access to my bank accounts, my online passwords – my life.


Cancel your bank card

I could tell from my online bank account that my card was in a thief’s hands. Several contactless payments had been attempted within hours, and I’d never enabled contactless (thank goodness - and now I never will). I called the bank’s helpline, and its fraud department refunded the transactions. If the same happens to you, check your bank’s website for the best contact number.

Later I realised that the thieves had continued spending my money via ‘transfer’ after the card had been cancelled. It’s easy to see how criminals can do this with just your laptop. They go to your account on any shopping site – Amazon or an online supermarket – and log in using your laptop’s stored passwords and click through to find all your financial details. Small transactions are often not immediately monitored by banks, meaning thieves can still use a cancelled card – something I’m still taking up with my bank.

Delete your passwords

Next, use your desktop PC (or second laptop, if you have one) to cancel all your passwords. Every single one. Go to your browser’s settings and look for the password manager. For example, in Chrome, click ‘Show advanced settings’ in Settings and then click ‘Manage passwords’. Delete each password by clicking the ‘x’ to its right. Next, wipe and uninstall any password manager (such as LastPass) that may be syncing your data with your stolen laptop. Don’t set any new passwords yet, except a browser password, which you’ll need to disable your browser’s sync tools (see the next tip).

Deleting all your login data is an unpleasant and time-consuming process, but you have to do it. When you lose a laptop, you stand to lose a lot more than an expensive device.

Disable browser sync

Services like Chrome Sync and Firefox Sync are great for keeping your bookmarks, stored passwords and extensions consistent across your PC and laptop. But they can be a nightmare if one of those computers is stolen, because any changes (such as passwords) you make to your remaining PC are instantly synced to the stolen computer.

After you’ve wiped all your passwords, disable browser syncing in your browser settings. To do this in Chrome, for example, click Settings, ‘Advanced sync settings’, select ‘Choose what to sync’ in the dropdown menu and untick everything. Then select ‘Encrypt all synced data with your own sync passphrase’ and create a password.

Only at this point should you start creating new logins and passwords, as well as changing your payment information on all your accounts.


Note your serial numbers

I would have increased my chances of getting my laptop back by knowing its serial number. But I never made a note of it. Because, as the kind woman at my insurance company said: “You don’t expect to be burgled, do you?”

Take a photo of the numbers on the back of your laptop, PC peripherals and other devices. And don’t stop there – also get close-ups of distinguishing features, such as scratches and marks.

Also take screenshots of your laptop’s (and any other devices’) identifying information. For example, in Windows 10, go to the Control Panel, click ‘System and Security’ and then, under the heading System, click ‘See the name of this computer’. Take a screenshot (click Print Screen and paste the grab into Paint or another design program) and email it to yourself, then print and file it.

Install tracking software

Once installed on your laptop, tablet or other device, tracking software lets you see where that device is and what it’s being used for. Obviously it’s a little late to install one of these programs on my laptop (we’re firmly in “if only” territory now), but using one or more of these tools could help you to track a stolen laptop and even photograph the criminal using it.

First, if you have a Windows 10 laptop, you should enable Find My Device ( Once this free built-in service is switched on, you can use your Microsoft account to find your Windows 10 device – even if it’s only slipped down the back of the sofa.

Prey ( is our favourite tracking program. It supports Windows 7 and 8.1 as well as 10, and also has free apps for Android ( and iOS ( It’s free for the first three devices you use it on.

Once you install Prey, it runs silently in the background, using as little battery life as possible (handy if your device is stolen). By logging in on another device you can launch Prey remotely on the laptop, tablet or phone that’s gone missing. Not only will the program give details of where the lost device is, it’ll even silently and secretly take a photo of who’s using it. Along with the device’s serial number, that photo is the most useful piece of evidence you can give to the police.

Back up all your data

Even the fanciest tracking software can’t stop a thief from wiping your stolen laptop, phone or tablet. What’s more, it’s standard practice among second-hand stores to wipe devices fully before selling them – and that’s a good thing, because it prevents data theft. But it does mean you can lose all your data by the time you find your stolen laptop.

I used my laptop for little more than watching TV online and testing the odd Windows 8.1 program, but most people’s laptops are full of photos, documents, videos and other data that’s of great practical and personal value. So buy an external hard drive and make regular full backups, ensuring you hide it away so that it won’t be stolen at the same time as your laptop.


The police non-emergency number is 101, though it seemed constantly engaged when I tried it. You could persist until you get through, or alternatively, report the crime online (each constabulary has its own website). The police will then give you a crimereport number.

The crime-report number obtained from the police is vital at this stage. My insurance company was very helpful, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to make a claim because my laptop was partially used for work purposes. Hopefully, this won’t be the case for you.

These types of shop work closely with police, who check the shops’ databases every morning for serial numbers of reported stolen goods. It doesn’t hurt to ring yourself, though in my case staff confirmed they don’t buy laptops without chargers.