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How to recover a stolen laptop and get your data back

It's everyone's nightmare: you take your eye off your laptop for only a second, and it's been whisked away by an opportunistic criminal. All your files, all your half-finished work, even your family photos, have all been swiped. So what can you do before and after a theft to make life difficult for the robbers?

1. Protect your data

Make sure you have a password protected login. This will only stop someone who is not at all technical, but it may be enough for most casual criminals.Encrypt your home directory or desktop. A more tech-savvy criminal will take out your hard drive and read it on a different machine, looking for bank details or personal information to be used in identity fraud. Encrypting can be done on any platform, and will do a good job of preventing your data from falling into the hands of criminals.

2. Get your data back

Backup in the cloud. The cloud is one way to go, but options are limited, you can get several GBs for free from Dropbox and up to 50 GBs for £6 a month. For the gamers out there, this is cheaper than a World of Warcraft subscription, so you don't have much of an excuse to not do it if you are worried about protecting your data. Your data on Dropbox is encrypted by default, but you can encrypt it yourself before sending it to them for an additional layer of security.Backup on an external hard drive. Most external hard drives offer backup software that can do incremental backups of your data as you go, and include facilities to restore the data afterwards. Windows 7 and 8 have a reasonable restore and recovery tool included, and you should use these if you don't want to lose your files. What's more, a 2TB external hard disk costs less than £100 – and that's a price most people would consider cheap for all of their data.

3. Get your laptop back

File a police report. This is very important. Most criminals will get caught at some point, and often their houses or flats are full of stolen electronics. The problem the police face is that so few people report their property missing, and fail to provide serial numbers and other identifying information, that it can be hard to match stolen laptop to aggrieved owner.

Use tracking software. There are several programs such as GadgetTrak that will phone home from your system, even taking advantage of webcams to take snapshots of the thief or whoever opens the laptop without your permission. Without any kind of tracking software, the chance of getting a stolen laptop back is around 3 per cent. With it, that can rise to as much as 90 per cent. So be prepared.Join the Prey Project. The Prey Project is free and open source and runs on most platforms. It has geo-location, WiFi auto connect, screen capture, webcam and lockdown capabilities. They also offer Pro accounts for a reasonable price that allow you to use it with more than three devices and includes other features.

Image: Flickr (sax*)