A laptop is a lot of things—it’s a mobile entertainment center, a portal to the web, and a way to get work done away from home. More than anything, though, it’s a freakin’-expensive piece of hardware that you absolutely do not want to lose.
Of course, the best way to keep your laptop is to not get it stolen in the first place. But if you do, you can be prepared to try and track it down. Plenty of companies are more than happy to charge you a recurring fee for this sort of protection, but you can actually get it for free. A software package called Prey allows you to remotely monitor your stolen laptop, retrieving screenshots, webcam pictures, and Wi-Fi hotspot information that you (and the police) can use to track down your property . It’s open source, it’s free, and we’ll show you how to use it.
In Windows, Prey runs as a service. Unfortunately, that means that its tracking abilities will only kick in when a thief logs into a user account on your computer. A truly sophisticated criminal would know to never do this, but we’re looking to provide protection against your average thug, not Ethan Hunt.
So the thug has to be able to log into an account. You’ve got two options: First, you could remove the password from your primary account (which for safety reasons should never be the administrative account). That leaves your data exposed, so we recommend the second option—creating a password-unprotected guest account.
Creating a guest account is easy—just open the Start Menu, then right-click Computer and select Manage. In the Local Users and Groups tab you can right-click and create a new account (above).
Now, log in to your new guest account, and download the Prey installer from www.preyproject.com. Run the installer, and when you get to the end, choose to configure Prey now. The first thing you’ll need to decide is how you want to manage Prey (below). You can choose to use the online control panel, or to set it up in stand-alone mode. There are a few drawbacks to the online control panel (you can only store 10 reports at once online, for one), but we think the convenience outweighs any limitations. Select the control panel method and you’ll be asked to create an account.
The only other setting you may want to change locally is to tell your computer to automatically connect to in-range Wi-Fi hotspots. This may help Prey send you reports, even if the perp doesn’t mean to connect to the Internet.
The unthinkable has happened! Your laptop has been pilfered! (Or, you just want to test out Prey). It’s time to log in to the control panel and have a look around. In the control panel at Preyproject.com, there are a number of reporting options you can set, but the most important is at the top, marked Missing. If your laptop is stolen, toggle this option as soon as possible to tell Prey to start sending reports. You can also increase the frequency of sent reports, but remember that the free version of Prey stores only 10 reports at a time, so if you’re not going to be able to retrieve the reports over a few hours, you might want to set a longer interval. Beyond that, all the options are pretty straightforward—they allow you to keep track of networking and geolocation information (above), so you can find your laptop, and to track webcam activity and which programs the thief uses (below), so you can identify them to the police.
So that’s it—sit back, wait for the reports to start rolling in, and laugh maniacally.