Three things to do when your phone or laptop is stolen, and four things to prevent losing everything

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.

Three things to do when your phone or laptop is stolen, and four things to prevent losing everything

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.

Once your laptop or connected belongings have been stolen, however, you’ve got to mitigate against damage as quickly as possible. Here are the three things you need to do immediately after discovering your belongings have been stolen.

1. 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.

2. 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.

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 much more than an expensive device.

3. Disable browser sync

Services such as 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.

But how can you help prevent or safeguard yourself from the damage of laptop or tablet theft? Over on the next page we outline some precuations to take before your device gets taken from you.

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