How to track a stolen phone, laptop or tablet

The more you use your laptop, smartphone or tablet, the more you have to lose if it’s stolen. The material cost of the loss may be taken care of by your insurance, but consider the fact that your email is now in the hands of a stranger – as is your internet history, which probably contains details of where you shop and bank. The worst-case scenario is that your phone or computer will automatically log you in to sites such as Facebook, which is a treasure trove of valuable personal information.


Click for our step-by-step guide to setting up the free Prey tracking tool on an Android phone or tablet

You can protect yourself by using passwords and PIN codes, but this won’t necessarily protect your data, nor will it help recover your property any faster. Fortunately, there’s a good chance that your stolen phone or computer will connect to the internet again – either automatically, or when a careless thief logs on. With the right software, your purloined hardware can be made to quietly phone home with information that can help you track it down. Alternatively, you can prime an anti-theft service to destroy all stored data as soon as the device checks into the internet.

Some devices, such as iOS hardware, come with tracking and remote wiping capabilities preinstalled; you need only to activate the service. Others, such as certain Dell Vostro laptops, come with a year’s subscription to tracking and remote deletion services. If you’re using an Android device, or a laptop without preinstalled anti-theft software, however, you’ll need to install something yourself.

Where in the world?

The first thing you’ll likely want to know about a stolen device is where it is now. Devices with GPS can normally report their own location to a high level of accuracy, so long as they’re outdoors or near a window. However, even non-GPS equipped devices, such as laptops and Wi-Fi-only tablets, can often get a spookily accurate location fix by using Google’s location API. This works by mining the data gathered by Google’s Street View cars, which includes the geographical locations of wireless basestations. By querying which basestations your device can see, and cross-referencing this with Google’s data, you can arrive at a surprisingly accurate estimate – to within a few yards, in some cases – of the location of a device.

Wi-Fi-based geolocation can provide a surprisingly accurate estimate of your laptop's whereabouts

This approach works best when there are plenty of wireless networks around to survey. If there aren’t, another option is to try to guess your device’s location based on its IP address. This is a much less accurate method – an address might be located anywhere in an area up to several miles across – but it’s a starting point.

Tracking a stolen laptop

There are plenty of tracking options out there, including some very high-end, expensive software aimed at IT managers with many devices to take care of. For consumers, there are a few high-quality packages that are easy to set up.

For those happy to spend cash, you can opt for a service such as Absolute Software’s LoJack for Laptops, which will set you back less than £30 inc VAT for a year of coverage. In return, you get the ability to lock your laptop remotely and display an immovable message on the screen – perhaps your phone number, or details of a reward for the safe return of your machine.

Alternatively, you can declare your laptop stolen, which provokes a more dramatic response. In this circumstance, LoJack begins silently capturing screen grabs and logging keystrokes, and sends them back to the Absolute Monitoring Centre, along with geolocation data. This allows the company to build up a detailed dossier of evidence about the laptop’s location and the person in control of it, which is then passed to the police.

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