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How to track down a stolen gadget

Stolen phone? Lost laptop? Missing camera? New software and services can pinpoint your purloined tech.

By Staff writer / June 28, 2011

Laptop stolen? Software called Hidden will let you see who's using the purloined computer.

Carl Wiens

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Theft is a tough crime to crack. Burglars rarely leave behind any evidence; witnesses are few and far between; and police resources, especially in cities, often go toward homicides and other more pressing crimes.

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In Oakland, Calif., three police investigators must juggle 2,400 new reports of stolen property each month.

"Laptops are not so much a priority," says Holly Joshi, spokeswoman for the Oakland Police Department. "Unless a citizen has seen the burglar, we don't have the staffing levels to chase everything down."

So when Joshua Kaufman reported the theft of his MacBook to the Oakland police in March, he didn't hear anything back. But Mr. Kaufman had a secret weapon. Before his computer was stolen, he had installed Hidden, a laptop locator.

Hidden, and other forms of software like it, offer gadget owners some peace of mind. The programs help track down and recover lost or stolen electronics. Here are some of the best options for Macs, PCs, phones, and digital cameras:

Computers: The Hidden software runs quietly in the background, providing three useful, if borderline creepy, tools to locate iMacs and MacBooks. For $15 a year, the program can pinpoint a missing machine to within a quarter-mile radius, allow a Mac's true owner to take screen shots of what programs are running, and remotely turn on the laptop's webcam to snap pictures of the person using it.

A month after the break-in, Kaufman handed police a trove of images and information about his MacBook's illegitimate new owner. Since burglars often fence stolen property, Kaufman couldn't be sure if the young man in these pictures was the actual robber, but he provided police with the person's work e-mail account, tying the suspect to a local taxi company.

After some extra nudging from news outlets and social media, including Kauf­man's own blog (called This Guy Has My MacBook), the police arrested the man on May 31 and reunited Kaufman with his missing laptop.

Prey performs many of the same features for Macs, PCs, and Linux computers – without the annual fee. If your laptop goes missing, Prey will continuously search for an Internet connection. Once it can phone home, the software will e-mail its owner with approximate coordinates.

Unfortunately, Prey and Hidden only work if the computer is turned on, and a smart crook could wipe your hard drive, removing the software. Still, applications such as Hidden and Prey are "definitely a helpful tool," says Ms. Joshi, with the Oakland police. "It's not very expensive, so if people feel comfortable doing so, they should look into installing it."

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