Theft of Laptops

Laptop computers are a prime target for theft at airports, hotels, railroad terminals and on trains. According to Safeware, a computer insurance firm in Columbus, Ohio, 309,000 laptop computers were stolen in the United States during 1997, and 10% of all laptop thefts occurred in airports.

  When a laptop is stolen, one doesn't know whether it was taken for the value of the information on the computer or for the value of the computer itself. This makes it difficult to assess the damage caused by the loss.

Airports offer a particularly inviting atmosphere for laptop thieves due to large crowds, hectic schedules, and weary travelers. Laptop thefts commonly occur in places where people set them down -- at security checkpoints, pay phones, lounges and restaurants, check-in lines, and restrooms.

Two incidents at separate European airports demonstrate the modus operandi of thieves operating in pairs to target laptop computers: 1

  • Airport security at Brussels International Airport reported that two thieves exploited a contrived delay around the security X-ray machines. The first thief preceded the traveler through the security checkpoint and then loitered around the area where security examines carry-on luggage. When the traveler placed his laptop computer onto the conveyer belt of the X-ray machine, the second thief stepped in front of the traveler and set off the metal detector. With the traveler now delayed, the first thief removed the traveler's laptop from the conveyer belt just after it passed through the X-ray machine and quickly disappeared.
  • While walking around the Frankfurt International Airport in Germany, a traveler carrying a laptop computer in his roll bag did not notice a thief position himself to walk in front of him. The thief stopped abruptly as the traveler bypassed a crowd of people, causing the traveler also to stop. A second thief, who was following close behind, quickly removed the traveler's laptop computer from his roll bag and disappeared into the crowd.

All travelers, both domestic and international, should be alert to any sudden diversions when traveling, especially when transiting transportation terminals. If victimized, travelers should report the thefts immediately to the authorities and be able to provide the makes, model information, and serial numbers of their laptop computers, or any other items of value.

Protection of Laptops

The best protection for information on your laptop is to encrypt all sensitive files and e-mail. A variety of keys, cards, and other physical means of protecting information on a laptop are now coming on the market. Evaluate the various alternatives to see if one of them meets your needs.

Here are some other guidelines for protecting laptops:

  • Never let a laptop out of your sight in an airport or other public area. If you set it down while checking in at the airport counter or hotel registration desk, lean it against your leg so that you can feel its presence, or hold it between your feet.
  • When going through the airport security check, don't place your laptop on the conveyor belt until you are sure no one in front of you is being delayed. If you are delayed while passing through the checkpoint, keep your eye on your laptop.
  • Never, ever, check your laptop (or other valuables) with your luggage.
  • Never keep passwords or access phone numbers on the machine or in the case.
  • If possible, put your laptop in a bag that does not resemble a laptop carrying case.
  • If your hotel room has a safe, keep your laptop in the safe while you are out of the room.
  • Before traveling, back up all files.

Related Topic: Theft While Traveling, Security and Safety Recommendations during foreign travel.

1. National Counterintelligence Center, Counterintelligence News and Developments, March 1996.