Laptops

How do I use Prey to help recover a stolen laptop?

Prey is an open source application that can help you find your laptop when it is stolen.

Laptops are stolen all the time. And recovering a stolen laptop is made very difficult when steps have not been taken to help this task get accomplished. Prey is an open source application, available for Windows, Mac, and Linux, that can help you out when your laptop is stolen. Prey takes an ingenious approach to laptop recovery, because once it is installed, it will send timed reports to a configured e-mail address containing information describing its whereabouts. The information collected includes:

  • Status of the computer
  • List of running programs and active connections
  • Detailed network and WI-FI report
  • Screenshot of running desktop
  • A picture of the thief (if the stolen laptop is equipped with a Webcam)

Of course you are probably thinking that this is a lot of information to be sending out, especially since, with this setup, your laptop will be sending out this information even when the laptop isn't stolen. Ah, but the creators have thought of that as well. You can configure Prey to send out the information only if it finds a certain Web URL that you created in the event of the laptop being stolen. We'll address that in a bit. First, let's look at how to get the program and install it.

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Getting and installing

Before we start, you should know that Prey requires the .NET library. If your laptop does not have this installed, you will have to install it before you can work with Prey. First download the zip file from the Prey Download Page. Once you have that on your hard drive, unzip the file and open the resulting folder. Within this folder you will see a few executable files. The file you need to concentrate on is PreyConfig.exe.

Configuring Prey

Here is the information you will need to set up Prey:

  • URL: More on this later
  • E-mail address: This will be the address Prey sends all information to.
  • SMTP Server: The SMTP server Prey will use to send e-mail.
  • Port: The port the SMTP server will use.
  • SSL: If your SMTP server uses SSL, you will have to check this box.
  • Username: This is the username for the SMTP server.
  • Password: This is the password for the SMTP server.
In order to configure Prey, double-click on the PreyConfig.exe file. When the configuration window opens (Figure A), enter the necessary information, but do not enter a URL.

Figure A

If you don't want to create an account with Prey, you can go the simple e-mail route.

One thing to note is that if you use Google's SMTP server you will need to set the port to 587 and click the SSL checkbox.

Before you activate Prey you have to locate the PreyAgent executable command. To do this, click the Activate checkbox, which will open an Explorer window where you can locate the PreyAgent.exe file.

Once you have entered all the information, click the Activate button and you are good to go. Prey will begin to send information to the configured e-mail address in the time increment you have configured.

Setting up a URL

As stated earlier, the developers have created a way for you to pseudo-activate Prey should your laptop be stolen. What you do is create a URL that Prey can check for (it will do so at the time increment configured). When Prey finds that URL, it will then begin to send out the information to the configured e-mail address.

The URL you create is up to you, but make sure you have the capability of creating that URL from anywhere at any time. Say you own the domain http://www.mydomainishere.com. You can configure Prey to check for the URL http:///www.mydomainishere.com/STOLEN.html. If your laptop is, in fact, stolen, create a Web page with that address (you can just create a blank STOLEN.html file as Prey checks only for the existence of the address) and then you will begin to receive information at the configured e-mail address.

When you click the Activate button, a new window will pop up with a message telling you the configuration is OK.

Using the Prey Control Panel

If you choose to create an account on Prey's site, you can take advantage of their Control Panel for more granular control of your stolen hardware. After you sign up for the service, you will get an activation key, which you will enter in the configuration screen. You will also have to add a new device in the Control Panel. Click the Add New Device button once you have logged in. In this new screen (Figure B), you enter a name, select the device type, select the OS, and then click the Create button. When you create the device, you will be given a device code that you will then enter into the configuration screen.

Figure B

You can add numerous devices here.

Problem

In order for Prey to actually work, it will have to be booted up and connected online. This can be avoided unless the first thing a thief does is format your hard drive. If that is the case, you are out of luck.

Final thoughts

Is Prey a perfect solution? No, but it is an interesting and well-executed solution that just happens to be open source and cross-platform. This enables pretty much anyone to have at least a slight chance of recovering a stolen laptop. And even the slightest assurance is better than none.

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About

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.

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