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Don't get Apple picked: How to protect your Mac from theft in public places

Ben Boychuk | Feb. 21, 2013
Protecting your Mac from theft in public places might seem like a pain, but taking a few steps can save you a lot of hassle down the road, as Ben Boychuk learned firsthand

You hear the statistic all the time--so often, in fact, that it becomes noise: A laptop is stolen every 53 seconds. According to the FBI, 97 percent of them are never recovered.

I was content to labor blissfully away in the belief that laptop thefts happen to other people--until, in January, I became one of those other people. The crime itself was brazen: I was in the middle of typing an email when a young man snatched my laptop from beneath my fingertips, ran out the door of the Starbucks where I was seated, and jumped into a waiting car.

Frankly, I had let my guard down. I was a regular patron of the place, it was three o'clock in the afternoon, and plenty of witnesses were around. But it was all over in about 30 seconds.

The phenomenon is called "Apple picking," and it's an epidemic in major cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York--as well as in Southern California suburbs, as it turned out. I later learned that in the course of just three days, thieves had picked off unsuspecting Apple users in at least 24 Starbucks locations around the region known as the Inland Empire.

Apple: Helpful to a point

When a thief absconds with your phone, tablet, or computer, naturally you call the police. But what should you do while you wait for law enforcement?

Apple's solution is the "Find My Mac" or "Find My iPhone" service. In both cases, the location tracking functions only if you've enabled the device's location services. (Find My Mac works only with Macs running OS X Lion or later.) Even then, police say, simply turning off the device easily defeats the feature. The advantage, however, is that users may be able to lock or delete the contents of their device remotely, thereby securing their data and making it harder for thieves to resell the machine.

My MacBook Pro was less than a month old. It was untethered, uninsured, and--as I realized a few minutes after the theft occurred--unconnected. Within a few minutes after my laptop was stolen, I launched my iPhone's Find My Phone app, which keeps track of all of my registered devices. For whatever reason, I had either forgotten to enable or absentmindedly disabled the location services on the MacBook. (The Find My Mac service does have its potential drawbacks, as Wired's Mat Honan learned--someone who cracks your password could theoretically use it to erase your computer.)

The good news is that even without location services, you can still lock or erase the machine remotely, but only when the device connects to the Internet. Weeks after my incident, the remote-erase action for my laptop still shows up as "pending" in Find My iPhone.


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