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On the Road Again - Traveling with Your Laptop

by Mary Beth Jerry, Director of Non-credit Computer and Technology Programs, Westchester Community College, Valhalla, NY
Reprinted with permission from TechXpertise, the technical newsletter of the Business Council of Westchester

FBI statistics claim that laptop theft is second only to identity theft in frequency. An estimated 2 million laptops are reported stolen and that doesn't include the thousands that are lost or left behind in airports, motels and conference centers. If you are traveling with your laptop for business or vacation this summer, here are some suggestions for keeping both your computer and your important data safe.

Before you go, do a reality check - do you really need to take the computer? It may be safest to leave it home if you only need occasional access that could be done on your phone, at a coffee shop, public library or some other facility at your destination.

If you must take it, then consider these steps as preparation:

  • Be sure your anti-virus protection, firewall, critical software updates and patches are all up to date.

  • Make a full backup of your system and data. Leave a copy home and carry a copy with you on your person - don't put it in your checked luggage.

  • If there are important or sensitive data files that you will not need while you are away, consider removing them from your laptop (after making sure that you have a backup copy from which to restore them after you return home). Your data can't be stolen if it isn't with you.

  • If you can, keep your data files on a removable device like a USB drive rather than on your laptop hard drive. Keep the USB drive on your person at all times. If your laptop should disappear, at least your data will be safe.

  • If you are technically savvy, you may want to consider removing your hard drive and carrying it separately from the computer. If the computer is stolen, your software and files won't go with it.

  • Be sure to make a record of your laptop model and serial number and leave a copy at home and put one in your wallet. If you are traveling out of the US you may want to take along a copy of your sales receipt from the time of purchase to prove ownership. Otherwise there could be a question at Customs as to whether you purchased the computer while you were traveling and, therefore, owe Duty tax.

  • Etch your name and/or some other kind of identifying information onto the case to make it more difficult to resell if stolen.

  • Register your laptop with the manufacturer. If an unauthorized person ever contacts the manufacturer for service, the registration information may bring their ownership into question.

  • Set a strong BIOS password that must be entered for the computer to boot up. The procedure to set a power on password varies among computer types so refer to your hardware manual or contact the manufacturer's support desk or other computer consultant. A strong password is at least 7 characters long and contains both upper and lowercase letters, numbers and special symbols. Don't forget your password! If you write it down be sure you don't keep it with the laptop. Check with the hardware manufacturer to see what their policy is for resetting a forgotten password. It should involve returning the computer to the manufacturer to have it reset so that the system is only returned to the registered owner.

  • You may also want to save your documents specifying a password that must be entered before they can be opened (in MS Office applications, look in Tools/Options/Security tab). There are also third party encryption software programs that can be used to protect your data files.

  • Be sure your battery is fully charged if you are traveling by air. You may be required to boot up the computer at the boarding security station and a fully charged battery will speed the process.

  • Don't carry your computer in a typical case that announces "computer inside".

  • You may want to purchase a security cable to lock down the computer to a table or other fixed object while you are using it in public or leaving it in your hotel room (although putting in the room safe may be a better idea). Many laptops have a Universal Security Slot to accommodate the use of security devices.

  • In some cases it may be worth investing in asset tracking software and monitoring. Briefly, if the laptop is stolen and used to access the Internet, the software provides a way for the monitoring company to track its location.

  • Once your trip is underway keep these things in mind:

  • Always keep your laptop with you and in sight. Don't put it in your checked luggage or on a luggage cart. Don't put it down and walk away, even for a moment.

  • You may want to ask airport security to do a hand inspection of your laptop rather than sending it down the conveyor belt through the x-ray machine. The x-rays won't damage your disk or data, but if you are delayed in picking up your hand luggage from the conveyor, someone else could be picking up your laptop.

  • Be sure you don't carry anything that will set off the metal detector. While the security staff are distracted by checking out the situation, you and they may not notice someone else picking up your laptop as it rolls down the conveyor belt.

  • If you are using your computer while sitting in a waiting area, hotel lobby, in flight, etc., be aware that others near you could be looking over your shoulder at your screen. You don't want your sensitive information to become casual reading for someone else - you never know if they work for your competitors!

  • Hours spent locked in a hot car (or a cold one in winter) can damage your laptop and storage devices.

  • Don't leave your laptop unsecured in your hotel room when you are out. Use your security cable or lock it in the room safe. While the hotel staff may be trustworthy, there's no reason to take chances should someone gain unauthorized access to your room.

  • Finally, if your trip includes a visit to the beach, resist the temptation to take along your laptop for a little "surfing" of a different kind. Sand and seawater can do wicked things to your system. So just spread out your blanket, slather on the sunscreen and relax (you deserve it)!

Have a great trip!