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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

Apple itself is of little help in such cases. AppleCare's extended warranty doesn't cover theft or damage from crime. Visiting Apple's support page is a dead end. Clicking "product has been lost or stolen" gets you a curt reply: "If you have lost or found an Apple product, please contact your local law enforcement agency to report it. Choose another support topic to continue this online session."

At the encouragement of the local police officers investigating my theft, I called Apple's toll-free number and spoke with a customer service representative. After explaining my situation, and noting that the police had advised me to call, I spent a few minutes on hold as the representative conferred with a supervisor.

When the rep returned to the line, he said that he would make a note of the crime and my machine's serial number. He also gave me a "case number," before adding apologetically, "We don't really have any way in the system to flag stolen items."

Given the rise in Apple-related thefts--16,000 in New York last year alone--one would think the company would be keen on being more helpful to law enforcement, by, for example, creating and maintaining a database that could flag stolen goods that end up at an Apple Store Genius Bar.

Parties of the third part

Several third-party applications promise superior theft protection. All of them provide variations on the same service: When you report your equipment missing through a Web-based control panel, the software will attempt to locate your device using its geolocation features, if the device is connected to the Internet. All of these programs can also take surreptitious screenshots and photos using the device's iSight camera, and all include features that allow remote monitoring, locking, and deletion.

Flipcode's Hidden "boasts the most advanced theft tracking software for your Mac." I tested Hidden on my desktop computer, an iMac. Using nearby Wi-Fi points, the app placed my computer about a block and a half south of where I actually live. Close enough for government work? I tried a second test, which successfully located the machine. You can also enable the computer to take photos of the illicit user. Hidden's basic plan starts at $15 a year for one machine, with up to five licenses costing $45 annually.

Prey is a free, open-source alternative--and it was quite a bit more accurate than Hidden on my first go-round. Not only did Prey pinpoint my computer's exact location, but it also took a screenshot and a clandestine photo of me using the machine, and wrapped up all that data in an online report I could access from the Web. The "pro" version starts at $5 a month for up to three devices, and provides up to 100 reports, "on demand" activation, and an "active mode" that lets you keep track of your devices at all times, not just when they're missing.


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