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How to Keep Your MacBook Safe: Theft Prevention and Recovery Tactics

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Many thieves are opportunists. They will steal your Mac, given the opportunity, if it is left alone at the coffee shop, in the workplace, in your car or even in your home. There are deterrents that you can use to prevent your Mac from being stolen and there is technology that can be employed to locate your Mac (and even who is using it). Let's examine the deterrents and technology.

Desktops Too!

While the title says "MacBook," many of the points discussed in this article apply, equally, to desktop Macs. This article looks at preventing the theft of your Mac in the first place, and techniques to facilitate it's recovery should it be stolen.


Theft Prevention

It is possible for software to locate your Mac, provided that you set it up before a theft. More on that later. Tracking software is not a panacea; it is far better to prevent a theft from happening than to have to recover your Mac following its theft.

Theft prevention can take two forms:

  • A visible deterrent.
  • A physical deterrent.

Visible Deterrents

A visible deterrent can be as simple as an asset tag or “traceable” sticker on your Mac. If you work for a large company, it is possible that you already have an asset tag affixed to your machine. If this label is obvious and/or difficult to remove (some leave VOID markings if removed) then that may be enough to deter a thief.

If you are a freelancer, or an individual who owns a Mac, you may wish to look into services such as Immobilise.com, in the United Kingdom, which is a free to register database where serial numbers of your Mac (and other items) may be recorded. A range of stickers, that can be purchased from Immobilise, warn that equipment is registered and traceable in the event of a theft. A similar database for people in the United States is available at Immobilize.net.

An Immobilise asset tag on a piece of equipment
An Immobilise asset tag on a piece of equipment.

Recipero, the company that operates Immobilise (UK) and Immobilize (US) maintains a database, CheckMend, used by companies and individuals to ensure they are not buying stolen equipment. Immobilise (UK) feeds data into the NMPR (National Mobile Property Register) used by all 43 Police forces in the United Kingdom. Immobilize (US) feeds into the TraceChecker database which is gaining traction with businesses and police in the United States, particularly police departments in Boston and Texas.

If the visible deterrent doesn’t work, the fact that your serial number is registered on a national database means there is still a chance your Mac will be identified as stolen and returned to you.

Physical Deterrents

A visible deterrent is just that. A deterrent. It is not a guarantee that a thief will not take your Mac. That is why you should consider a physical deterrent.

A visible deterrent is just that. A deterrent. It is not a guarantee that a thief will not take your Mac.

Probably the most popular anti-theft device for Macs, both desktop and laptop machines (and even PCs) is the Kensington Lock. The Kensington Lock is a length of steel wire formed into a loop at one end and a lock, usually combination or key-operated, at the other. The lock is placed through the loop of the wire that has been passed around a large, heavy or static object. The lock is then connected to your Mac.

A Kensington Lock
A Kensington Lock featuring two locks on one loop of steel wire.

As a theft-deterrent, the Kensington Lock is small, portable and can be deployed quickly and easily to secure your Mac by locking it to something larger, heavier and more difficult (or impossible) to steal. Just attach the Kensington Lock into a special hole, designed to accept it, on your Mac.

Tip: MacBook Air models and the MacBook Pro 15” Retina Display models do not have the necessary hole for the Kensington Lock. This is attributed to the slenderness of the chassis, meaning it is unable to accept the lock.

A Kensington Lock is ideal to secure your Mac wherever you are. You should certainly use it in hotel rooms and, for complete peace of mind, when stowing your MacBook in the boot of your car.

Owners of iMacs may not be aware that it is possible to use a Kensington Lock to secure your iMac, too. I use one on my 27” iMac in the office. Assuming that the burglars have already deactivated the burglar alarm and have got through two separate door locks, it is likely that they’ll make off with a colleague’s Mac and not mine.

A Kensington Lock attached to an iMac
A Kensington Lock attached to the rear of an iMac, as viewed through the stand.

That, however, is no reason to be complacent, which is why you should consider some Mac location software, just in case the worst does happen.


Theft Recovery

It is an unfortunate fact of life that computers do get stolen and, given their desirability and resale values, Apple computers are an increasingly attractive target for criminals. A staggering 97% of all stolen laptops are never recovered (source).

A staggering 97% of all stolen laptops are never recovered.

You can turn the odds of recovering your Mac in your favor by making use of modern technology. Provided, of course, that you were mindful enough to set it up beforehand.

There are now a number of software applications available to help track and locate your Mac in the event that it is lost or stolen. Popular methods to do this include Find My Mac from Apple, Prey from PreyProject and Orbicule’s Undercover.

Tip: Enable the Guest User in system preferences and assign (sensible) passwords to all other users on your Mac. Should your Mac be stolen, the thief is unlikely to be able to access any user accounts without your passwords. He will, however, be able to access the guest account, meaning that he will be able to use your Mac online and your tracking software will have a chance to locate your Mac. For tracking software to work you want the thief to use your Mac.

Find My Mac

Find My Mac is included with OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion and is similar to the Find my iPhone feature that has been available since the days of MobileMe. More recently, Apple has opened up this feature to everyone with an Apple ID, at no cost.

Tip: Find My Mac and Find My iPhone/iPad are opt-in services, from Apple, that require you to have an Apple ID and to enable the feature on your Mac(s) and iOS devices. Find My Mac is available on Macs running Lion (OS X 10.7.2 or later) and Mountain Lion (OS X 10.8 or later)

How to set up Find My Mac

  1. To enable Find My Mac, open System Preferences and click on the iCloud icon - the first icon in the Internet & Wireless section.
  2. If you have not already done so, enter your Apple ID and password. (If you have, skip to step 5).
  3. Agree to the use of Find My Mac.
  4. Allow Find My Mac to determine your (Mac’s) location.
  5. Check that the Find My Mac box is ticked.
Find My Mac in System Preferences
Ensure that Find My Mac, in System Preferences, has been ticked.

How to locate your Mac using Apple’s Find My Mac

As you might expect with Apple, using Find My Mac to locate your Mac is simple and straightforward. You can do this by logging into iCloud, via a web browser, on any internet-connected Mac (or PC).

Tip: You can use an iPhone or iPad to locate your Mac but you will not be able to log into iCloud on Safari. Instead, download the free Find My iPhone app (for iOS 5 and later) from the app store. You can use this app on a friend or colleague’s iOS device to locate your Mac. Do remember to log out, though.

Whether or not you will be able to locate your Mac will depend on whether it is subsequently turned on and connects to the Internet. When, or if, it is next connected to the Internet, its location will be determined using the IP address and from the wi-fi base stations that your Mac can see.

It uses this information to triangulate its likely position from a database of known wireless access point locations. This is done using databases of wi-fi access points such as Skyhook. It is rumoured that Apple has been compiling its own such database. Remember the uproar in many countries when Google Streetview cars were collecting such information?.

Your Mac’s last known position and time will be displayed should it not be online at the time that you check. You can opt to be notified by email when your Mac next comes online.

Locating your Mac with Apple's Find My Mac
If not presently online, Find My Mac tells you the last know location and can email you when your Mac next comes online.

Besides locating your Mac, Find My Mac allows you to display a message and/or play a sound. This will occur when the Mac next comes online, if it is not currently internet connected. Further options allow you to remote lock your Mac or remote wipe it. It is important to note that remote wiping your Mac will render it untraceable.

Your final option is to remote lock your Mac by assigning a six-digit code via iCloud. For your security, you are asked to confirm your six-digit code before iCloud remotely locks your Mac. The person using your Mac will then see a grey screen inviting them to enter the “system lock PIN code to unlock this Mac”. At the bottom of the screen a message states: “Please take this Mac to the nearest Police”, with options to sleep, restart or shut down.

Find My Mac can remote lock your Mac
Using Find My Mac to remote lock your Mac will prevent anyone without a six-digit code from using your Mac. It will also display a message asking that the Mac be taken to the nearest police station.

Prey

Prey is a popular application, from PreyProject.com, that installs a small agent on your Mac, which lies dormant until such time that you activate it from an online control panel. You can install Prey on up to three Macs on their free-for-lifetime plan which enables you to test it and provides an impressive number of features. Should your Mac be stolen you can pay to upgrade to their Pro plan to increase the number of reports to help locate your Mac.

The PreyProject online control panel
The Prey online control panel.

In addition to locating your Mac through wi-fi networks, displaying a message, triggering an alarm sound and locking the Mac, Prey adds a number of features to give you more information about your stolen Mac. These features include:

  • Network information giving you a list of active connections with the MAC addresses and public and private IP addresses.
  • A list of the nearby wi-fi hotspots.
  • A traceroute of your Mac’s connection to the internet.
  • Periodic screenshot of your Mac - people often log into email or social media sites that reveal their identity.
  • A list of files modified in, for example, the Home or Users folders on your Mac.
  • A list of programs being used on your Mac.
  • Periodic iSight photo - for identifying the person using your Mac without their realising.

The Prey web-based control panel automatically records the serial number, UUID and other important information about your Mac, too. This can provide useful if you had not already registered with a property marking database such as Immobilise in the UK or Immobilize in the US. Do it now and the Police will know the Mac is yours should they recover it.

Undercover

Undercover, from Belgian company Orbicule, is an established Mac app that in installed onto your machine and, to all intents and purposes, is invisible and lies dormant until needed - with the exception of "phoning home" its location every half hour.

If you report your Mac stolen, via a dedicated online control panel, Undercover will transmit the location of your Mac, to Orbicule’s servers, every eight minutes. Undercover will also transmit network information, take screen captures and iSight photos of the person using your Mac.

The Undercover online control panel
Orbicule's 'Undercover HQ' online control panel.

Undercover differs from Prey in the respect that you can enter the email address of the investigating police officer so that all of the collected data can be shared directly with the police.

In the event that your Mac can not be located, or the police have been unable to recover it, Undercover gives you the option to invoke ‘Plan B’. The software will stealthily simulate a backlight failure which, it is hoped, will result in the thief sending the computer for repair. Additionally, Undercover can block access to your Mac and, instead, display a full-screen message that can be customized by you.


Conclusions

This article has examined different precautions that you can take in order to prevent the theft of your Mac and, if stolen, aid in its potential location and recovery. You want to be one of the 3% of people who has their laptop (or iMac / Mac Pro) recovered, so give serious thought to the following:

  • Register your Mac's serial number with a property database.
  • Set up a guest profile on your Mac.
  • Password protect your user profile(s).
  • Enable your choice of location tracking software.

Apple’s Find My Mac is free and just needs to be enabled, but it only provides basic information and remote actions. Prey offers free and monthly paid options with additional functionality. Undercover offers only one-off paid option, offers similar functionality to Prey and can instruct share information directly with the police. Regardless of which tracking software you choose, be sure to test it so that you are familiar with it and understand how it works before your Mac gets stolen.

Registering your Mac on a database used by the Police should not be overlooked. Without it, they may not know to whom to return your Mac; location and tracking technology is not infallible. Don’t leave it until it’s too late. Crime happens. Nobody wants to be a victim but, if you are, it is encouraging to know that technology is on your side.

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