How to locate a stolen laptop

Keep track of your laptop.

What can you do if you find your laptop has been stolen? A free program called Prey might help you get it back.

Prey is available for Windows, Mac and Linux computers and can be used either for free or with an online control panel for a small charge. Once installed, it runs as a background process on your machine. At specified intervals, Prey connects to the Internet and attempts to determine if the laptop has been stolen.

How does it do this? Well, in one of two ways. First, if you configure Prey to use the developer's online control panel, when someone walks off with your machine, you would login to your account on the Prey website and indicate that the machine has been stolen. When Prey checks in with the online control panel, it will receive a message to activate the program.

On the other hand, you can also configure Prey to use the free "standalone" mode. In this setup, Prey never tries to access the Prey website, instead, you manually create a webpage and insert that page's internet address (URL) in Prey. The page doesn't have to contain any specific information; it just has to be live. Periodically, Prey will attempt to access the page. If the page exists, Prey continues to run and takes no further action. If your laptop is stolen, you simply delete the page. The next time Prey checks in, it cannot find the page and instead receives a "404 Not Found" message and activates.

So what happens when Prey determines that the machine has been taken? Well, it sends you timed reports that contain information describing the machine's whereabouts, such as:

  • The status of the computer,
  • A list of running programs and active connections,
  • Network and Wi-Fi information,
  • A screenshot of the running desktop,
  • And a picture of the physical surroundings (if the machine has a Webcam).

To find out more, view this demonstration video at techrepublic.

The downside of this type of program is highlighted in a recent BBC story, where this type of program was installed on a number of laptops subsequently lent by a US high school to its students. Unfortunately due to a "technical error", the laptop security device was apparently activated in at least some of the machines, assumed they had been stolen and started to take snapshots of their users and sent them back to the school.

For the story, visit

For a more in-depth analysis, visit

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