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

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.

What once was lost: The Find My iPhone service and app can help you locate an iOS device or Mac.

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.)

On location: You must enable Location Services, available in the Privacy section of the Security pane, for Find My Mac to work to its fullest.

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.

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.

You can run: As with many Mac security options, Hidden can pinpoint your missing computer on a map.

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.

Smile! Prey can take a surreptitious picture of the person using your Mac, as well as a screenshot of what they were looking at, and then post it online.

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.

Deep cover: Orbicule's Undercover can even simulate hardware failure.

Orbicule’s Undercover 5 costs $49 a year for a single license, and $59 to protect up to five Macs. Undercover allows you to set up a theft report, which can deliver periodic photos, keylogs, and locations directly to your local police department if you happen to have your investigating officer’s email address. But the app also offers a clever “Plan B” feature, which simulates a hardware failure on the device. Because most thieves aren’t exactly criminal masterminds, they might be inclined to take the computer in for repair. When that happens, Undercover allows you to display a message notifying the user—or the repair technician, in this case—that the machine is stolen and locked.

Absolute Software’s LoJack for Laptops uses a combination of software and human intelligence to locate your stolen device. If your Mac is stolen, the onus is on Absolute’s recovery team to work with police to track down the system. The service comes in standard and premium editions, with the latter including a $1000 guarantee for $50 a year.

There is one problem, however, and it's a doozy. If you use FileVault 2 (on OS X Lion or later) to encrypt your data, these third-party tracking programs won't work. So users face a choice: Either take advantage of encryption to ensure device thieves can't pilfer your data on top of plundering your hardware, or forego encryption for tools that might increase the odds of the authorities recovering your device and bringing the perps to justice.

Safeguard your data

With your laptop in the hands of thieves, your other immediate concern is recovering any lost data. The fact is, police say, most thieves aren’t interested in your data or personal information. They’re looking for a quick and easy score, with the going rate for a stolen MacBook about $100.

To the cloud! With services such as Dropbox and iCloud, you can make sure that most of your data is automatically backed up and accessible from all your devices.

Because my laptop was new, I didn’t lose much data. Also, I use Dropbox’s cloud-storage service. With plans starting at $10 a month (or $99 a year up front) for 100GB of storage, Dropbox provides a convenient way to sync and share files among several devices. Google Drive supplies 100GB for $5 a month, but, unlike Dropbox, limits file sizes to 10GB. Apple’s own iCloud premium service offers quite a bit less for quite a lot more—20GB for $40 a year, or just 50GB for $100 a year. But iCloud, of course, includes other features, such as space to back up your iOS devices.

Lock it down

Within a week, I had my replacement MacBook Pro. The same day the new laptop arrived, a police detective notified me that he had several subjects in custody “on unrelated crimes.”

Even if the culprits are off the streets, however, there’s no point in taking chances. So I invested in a good laptop lock. Unfortunately, while the older MacBook Pro models still have a security slot, the marvelously slim and lightweight MacBook Airs and the new Retina-display MacBook Pros do not.

Kensington, which makes a variety of locks, appears to have a solution for almost everything. Its laptop locks range in price from $30 to $60, and come with keys or use combinations. Wrap the 6-foot steel cable around a secure table leg, and all but the most obtuse thieves should leave you alone. Most Apple Stores sell Kensington’s $30 combination-lock model, but it isn’t displayed on the floor; you have to ask for it.

Safe! Kensington's SafeDock Air is one option for securing Apple's lightweight laptop, which doesn't have a standard security slot.

Kensington also offers the SafeDock Air for 11-inch and 13-inch MacBook Air models. Both retail for $90. As the name suggests, the SafeDock is a dock: Slide your in Air, flip up a security gate, and your machine is locked in. You still need a cable, though, to tie it down. The SafeDock is also ergonomic, providing a 4-inch lift for the laptop “for proper viewing.”

Locked and loaded: Though a bit of an eyesore, the Stop-Lock system makes it hard for a thief to steal your machine, and even harder for them to sell the device.

Whereas Kensington locks use a MacBook’s own security slot, Computer Security Products’ Stop-Lock system requires attaching a security plate to the laptop’s lid. At $44, Stop-Lock is competitive with Kensington’s locks. Aesthetically, the Stop-Lock system might make Steve Jobs turn over in his grave, but it provides a double deterrent: a tight, keyed lock, plus a means of tracking and identifying the stolen computer if a thief somehow makes off with it. The plate is bar-coded; users register the ID number at Computer Security’s website. Beneath the plate is a chemically bonded “tattoo” that says “stolen property” in bright, nonremovable red lettering.

Finally, for Apple’s new Retina MacBooks, which lack the old security slot, Maclocks sells the $70 Security Clear Case Bundle. This clear, rigid polymer shell fixes to the bottom of the computer and incorporates the security slot to which you attach the included cable lock. The Clear Case also comes with a top clear polymer skin to help guard against scratches and wear and tear.

An ounce of prevention...

Perhaps one of the most important things to remember when you’re securing your device is that thieves are less likely to steal what they cannot easily sell. Through a combination of software and hardware products, it’s not hard to protect your MacBook from the scourge of Apple picking.

Updated at 10:56 a.m. PT to detail third-party tracking apps’ incompatibility with FileVault. 

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