Thieves want to steal your gadgets—use these tips to thwart them

Preparation is key.

When someone slips your phone from your pocket or steals your laptop from a cafe table, you might have to scramble to deal with the consequences. In one stressful rush, you must attempt to retrieve your lost photos, deal with the loss of your vulnerable data, and eat the cost of the physical hardware.

To avoid this difficult and expensive process, you can take steps right now—while your devices are still in your possession—to prevent thieves from pinching your gadgets. There’s no sure-fire way to prevent theft, but even if someone manages to swipe your electronics, a little advance preparation can protect the personal data within, keeping your information safe and accessible only to you.

Protect your devices

Coffee shop phone
Lock your phone, and keep it within eyesight. Ben Kolde/Unsplash

A lot of the best anti-theft advice for gadgets applies just as well to any possession, whether it’s a cuddly toy or a new iPad. In short, remain aware of your surroundings and keep your devices within sight at all times. When you’re not using them, stash these items away in a bag that you should also keep close to hand.

When you’re on the go, avoid showing off your phone, tablet, or laptop to potential thieves. That means keeping them out of sight in the car, avoiding using them more than necessary on the street, and investing in secure bags, such as those with a padlock or a looped zipper mechanism.

You can also get tricky. For example, if your expensive laptop lives in an expensive case, think about toting the whole bundle in a nondescript or even scruffy bag, so that nobody will guess what’s inside. Of course, you’ll shatter the illusion once you start working in public, but this maneuver can help you on your way to and from your office—or local coffee shop.

Laptop lock
The right security lock can fasten your laptop in place. Sendt/Amazon

Speaking of coffee shops, when you work in any public space, including bars and trains, you should choose your placement with care. Ideally, your seat will provide a full view of your surroundings, and you get bonus points for finding a spot with a wall behind you. In that position, you’ll quickly spot anyone attempting to make a quick getaway with your stuff. A cozy corner offers a very secure position—even if it lacks a nearby wall outlet.

What about securing the device itself? Most laptops come with some kind of locking port. This is an outlet where you can plug in a cable that will fasten your device to something solid—like the table where you’re working—much the way a bike lock secures your ride to a rack. Even if your computer doesn’t have a built-in locking port, you can adapt it to add one.

Last but not least, you should think about home security. Anything you already do to deter burglars on your own turf, such as securing your doors and windows, will also help protect your gadgets. For a more tech-centric approach, consider investing in items like a safe for your valuable electronics, a watchful security camera, or smart lights that follow an automatic on-and-off schedule.

Enable device-finding services

Find My Mac
Your macOS computer comes with a utility to help you find a lost device. David Nield

Every major computer and smartphone operating system—Windows, macOS, iOS, and Android—includes a built-in device-finding service. You have to enable this feature in advance, but once you do, you can immediately locate missing or stolen gadgets, and wipe them remotely so thieves can’t access your data.

On a Windows computer, activate this feature at Settings > Update & Security > Find my device. Then, when you lose track of your laptop, open this website on another device to locate your missing machine and lock up its data.

Apple’s device-finding features work similarly on both macOS and iOS. If you own a Mac, you need to open System Preferences > iCloud and tick Find My Mac. On an iPhone or iPad, go to Settings and tap your Apple ID, then your device’s name, and finally Find My Phone. Once you’ve activated this feature, you can locate, erase, or lock down any of your Apple gadgets from the iCloud website or the iOS Find My Phone app.

Over on Android, you head to Settings > Security & location and activate a service called Find My Device. If your gadget vanishes, you can locate or wipe it from this website or from that same Settings > Security & location > Find My Device page on a different Android device.

Protect your lock screen

Windows gives you several ways to log in. David Nield

Any device you own should protect its secrets with a lock screen that forces would-be users to enter a password or pattern, or to provide a fingerprint or face. Those requirements act as your first line of defense against unwelcome visitors.

Because it’s so effective, most modern gadgets will strongly encourage you to set up a lock screen when you first turn on the device. If you’ve left your phone unlocked, it’s not too late to change that. On Android phones and tablets, head to Settings > Security & location > Screen lock. If you’re using an iPhone or an iPad, go to Settings > Face ID & Passcode (or Settings > Touch ID & Passcode).

With computers, you need to set up password-protected accounts for everyone who uses the computer—even if that just includes you. On a Windows machine, manage this in Settings > Accounts. On a Mac, you’ll find similar options under System Preferences > Users & Groups. While you’re tweaking the macOS settings, disable automatic login under the Login Options tab.

Back up your data

Android includes an automatic backup service. David Nield

If your device tragically vanishes into the ether, that doesn’t mean you have to bid farewell to your data. To retrieve photos, files, and other items when it counts, you need to put a solid backup procedure in place right now.

We’ve previously published a comprehensive guide to all your backup options, but here’s a brief summary. Windows provides the built-in OneDrive service, Apple phones and computers have iCloud, and Androids rely on Google Drive (check that it’s on at Settings > System > Advanced > Backup).

You’ll also find plenty of third-party options. For example, the aforementioned Google Drive works on Windows and macOS as well as Android. Dropbox has similar cross-platform capabilities.

Finally, when you back up your computer, don’t discount the hardware option. Plug in an external hard drive, and you can manually copy your most important files on a regular basis.

Again, for more information about how these services work and how to set them up, check out this guide to backing up your data.

Help the device’s finder track you down

Emergency contacts can help a bystander return your phone. David Nield

If you can’t find your device, that doesn’t necessarily mean someone has stolen it—you might have misplaced or dropped your electronics. In that case, you should give whoever finds the gear a chance to get in touch with you.

To do this on a phone, you can set a message on your lock screen or choose a couple emergency contacts. For your lock-screen message, think about the information you’re comfortable sharing. Your name, email address, and maybe an alternate phone number will all give the device’s finder a good way to get in touch with you. However, you probably shouldn’t put up your home address, as that could compromise your privacy.

On an Android, go to Settings > Security & location > Lock screen preferences > Lock screen message to enter this information. On iOS, you don’t have the same kind of lock screen control. But what you can do is take a screenshot of this information in a memo app or photograph the same content on physical paper. Then set that image as your background photo so it will show up on your lock screen.

Like a lock-screen message, an emergency contact (or two) gives a phone’s finder a way to contact its owner without unlocking the device. For your contact, choose a person who lives nearby and can easily get in touch with you—even when you’re temporarily phone-less. And once you have some friends or family members in mind, ask them for permission. That way, if a stranger calls them from your phone, they’ll be prepared to seek you out and share this information.

To set emergency contacts on iOS, open the Health app and choose Medical ID > Edit > Add emergency contact. To do the same on an Android, tap through to Settings > System > About phone > Emergency information > Add contact.

On laptops, you have more limited options: Windows and macOS don’t allow you to set up emergency contacts or lock-screen messages. However, you might use an image editor to put your phone number on the desktop wallpaper, allowing it to show up on the login screen. Alternatively, write your contact details on a sticker and slap it on the bottom of your laptop. That way, your computer won’t share your personal information with everyone at the cafe where you work, but if somebody finds it, they can easily flip it over to learn more about you.

Insure your gadgets

If you do buy insurance, make sure it covers theft. David Nield

Buying insurance for your possessions is a personal judgment call. That said, if your electronic devices had high price tags and you frequently carry them around with you, consider taking out cover. This means you can earn compensation when your gadgets suffer damage as well as theft.

As always, check the small print before you sign. Many insurance packages, including AppleCare, don’t cover theft, or they require that you pay extra for that protection. They have a decent reason for this policy: According to insurer SquareTrade, you’re four times more likely to break your phone than lose it or have someone steal it. So bear that in mind as you make your calculations.

If you do decide that insurance is worth it, start shopping around. You can often buy insurance from the store that sold your device, the manufacturer that built it, or the phone company that provides your cellular service. Check all outlets’ prices and see how they stack up. For example, Verizon will cover a smartphone’s loss and theft for $13 per month, with a device-dependent $20 to $200 deductible. In comparison, Best Buy will provide similar coverage for $11 per month with a deductible of $10 to $120.