New software allows laptops to talk back boldly to laptop thieves

Published 26 February 2009

Your laptop has been stolen? New software allows you to tell those thieves exactly — and when we say exactly, we mean exactly — what you think of them; software also helps police locate the stolen computer

Lost of stolen laptops are a big problem. Dell and the Ponomon Institute report airport security departments handle 12,000 lost laptops per week. Many taxi cab companies report finding 200 per day left in their cabs. Now, they tell you that when someone is pointing a gun at you and demanding your wallet, the last thing you want to do is talk back to him: Give him the wallet, the car keys, and anything else he wants — just make sure you walk away alive. Evergreen, Colorado-based Front Door Software has a different approach when it comes to lost or stolen laptops.

In the case of a lost laptop, the company’s Retriever program displays your contact information as your computer boots up. There is even space for a plea to a Good Samaritan — “$50 for my safe return,” or another sum of money you want to offer. In most cases, this should be enough to help an honest person return the machine, said Carrie Hafeman, chief executive of the five-person company based in Evergreen, Colo.

In a darker scenarios, however, Retriever takes off the kid gloves. If you realize your computer is missing, you can log on to a Web site and check a box indicating the computer is missing. Now during start-up, a big yellow and red banner appears on the screen, boldly declaring the laptop lost or stolen. This message is set to reappear every thirty seconds, no matter how many times the thief closes the window. You can remotely switch on a second password prompt if you fear the thief has also stolen your regular Windows, Macintosh, or Linux login.

Behind the scenes, Retriever uses built-in Wi-Fi to sniff out nearby networks, then finds out what Internet service providers power them. With that information in hand, Hafeman said, you can file a police report and get help locating the criminal.

While waiting for law enforcement to come through, you can even let off steam by sending new messages to the nagging “Stolen Computer!” screen. “You are being tracked. I am right at your door” was one, Hafeman said, adding that she could not bring herself to say others that came to mind. Customers have also tried to induce fear or guilt by switching their contact info to “Secret Service” and “Catholic church.”

The latest version of Retriever, which costs $29.95 for three years of use, is even more aggressive. Now, when the “stolen” screen pops up, the laptop cries for help. Use a canned message (“Help, this laptop is reported lost or stolen. If you are not my owner, please report me now”), or record your own. “You can say, ‘Get your hands off me, you S.O.B.’” Hafeman said.

Here is a summary of the features of this nifty new solution:

  • You can blast a message to your laptop by going to the Front Door Web site.  This allows you to change the logon message to indicate that the computer has been reported stolen.
  • You can send a 1 to 50 character “lockdown” code which prevents the thief or even a disgruntled employee from accessing the computer.
  • You can upgrade your personal information. In case you lose your cell phone as well or want to change any of your personal recovery information, you can change it after your laptop is taken.
  • You can turn on the Talking Laptop feature. This feature will cause your laptop to play a message such as “This computer has been reported stolen, Help!” through the laptop speakers. This message is customizable.
  • You can send a personal Text message to the thief which will appear on the boot up screen.
  • You can track your computer using Google Maps through the Front Door Web site. As soon as the computer detects an Internet connection, it uses proprietary technology to try to communicate its location through Google maps.