The rare retrieval of a notebook computer this week just underlines that FBI statistic. Finding the PC was made a priority for the agency, as it contained sensitive details on more than 26 million U.S. military veterans.
That outcome is unlikely for the thousands of ordinary people who lose a notebook, even though they, too, may be at risk of identity theft. A few simple things can help reduce some headaches after a laptop is stolen or misplaced, experts say. But the real solution is the most obvious: Don't let your PC get stolen.
"Common sense is the best defense," said Jon Oltsik, an analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group. That means not leaving your laptop in plain view in a car and not letting it out of your sight in an airport or at a conference or other public places, he said.
Butand loss are facts of life. More than 600,000 notebook thefts occurred in 2003, according to Safeware Insurance, which sells computer insurance. The number increased to about 750,000 laptops last year, according to Absolute Software, a maker of tools to retrieve .
"The proliferation of laptops has made the overall theft numbers go up," said Ben Haidri, vice president of marketing at Absolute.
Laptop leashes and locks sold by companies, including Kensington and Targus, can help prevent laptops from disappearing. Of course, like bicycle locks, these measures are only a deterrent. A determined thief will be able to bypass them easily.
"One of the simplest things consumers can do, if they have a laptop, it should never be in the backseat of a car," Haidri said.
In San Francisco, police have warned that places that offer wireless access to the Internet are turning into hot spots for laptop theft. Last year there were 48 laptop robberies in the city. This year that number is projected to surpass 70, with 18 thefts as of March, according to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle in April.
Some heists in San Francisco are particularly heinous. One finance manager was stabbed in the chest for his Apple Computer PowerBook while sitting at a coffee shop in the city's Mission District, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
Avoiding becoming a victim
There are a few techniques people can use to alleviate the problems that follow the loss of a laptop and the data on it.
A recent data backup means that a lost computer doesn't equal lost files. If there is private data on the machine, password protection and hard drive encryption can prevent access to that by the thief.
Software that scrambles full hard disk drives is sold by companies including PGP, which offers the PGP Whole Disk Encryption product for $149. Microsoft is also building encryption capability, called BitLocker, into enterprise and high-end consumer versions of Windows Vista, the successor to XP slated to be broadly available in January.
"Think about what's on your laptop. The threat to individuals is primarily about identity theft," said Andrew Krcik, vice president of marketing at PGP. "In the past the target has primarily been the hardware. We're seeing a lot of talk about laptops being targeted for the information that's on them."
Encrypting only certain files and folders is also an option. Various products can do this, including Windows XP and free software found on popular download Web sites such as Download.com. However, confidential information may be stored in the browser cache and other locations on the hard disk drive that can't be easily encrypted using those products. (Download.com, like CNET News.com, is a CNET Networks property.)
Reassuring, perhaps, is that the majority of laptop thieves are petty criminals who are only interested in the hardware. "Fifteen years ago, these guys were selling car stereos," Oltsik said.
Regardless, if a laptop with private data is stolen, laws in the majority of U.S. states now require that the people who might be at risk of identity fraud be notified. This is more likely if it is a business laptop and can be costly, not to mention a public relations fiasco. "If the laptops are corporate assets, they must be protected," Oltsik said.
Retrieving a lost laptop can be a long shot. Aincreases the chances of recovery. Companies including Absolute and zTrace sell software-based bugs. These products periodically connect to the Internet, if a PC is reported stolen, the computer returns details on its location, which is reported to law enforcement.
"We have 90 percent success rate," Absolute's Haidri said. The company has about 700,000 current subscribers to its service, about 15 percent of those are consumers who typically pay $99.99 for a three-year subscription, he said.
In the case of Absolute, the software is sometimes embedded in the system as part of the laptop BIOS. This means that it can't be removed, even if the hard disk drive is replaced or wiped clean, the company said.
The Absolute tracking packages for business users offer further options, including the ability to remotely wipe selected data when the laptop has been reported stolen. For the consumer version, called LoJack for Laptops, Absolute is considering a feature that will remotely retrieve data if the machine is reported missing, Haidri said.
Prevention might still be the best cure. James Van Dyke has been the victim of four ID crimes in the past. He runs security software on his PC and makes regular backups of his data. To prevent unfriendly eyes from understanding his personal data, he scrambles his files by hand.
"Any criminal that got a hold of my files would have nothing of value, because account numbers and other personal information is all rendered useless because I store it in a code that only makes sense to me," said Van Dyke, an analyst at Javelin Strategy & Research.