A manager's headache: When a thief stole three laptops

The sales team left their offices for 20 minutes. When they returned, three laptops were gone. An IT manager explains how he dealt with the aftermath and the steps he took to protect both hardware and data.

I was alarmed when I called my office to check my messages and was told that three laptops worth £4,000 (about $6,000 U.S.) had been stolen. Three members of the sales team had left their offices unlocked. When they returned 20 minutes later, they discovered that three laptops were missing, apparently taken by a thief who simply walked into the offices, picked up the machines, and left, unnoticed by the other people in nearby offices.

Adding up the damages
The monetary loss was significant. (We couldn’t submit an insurance claim because the sales offices weren’t locked.) We also faced the loss of a significant amount of important data stored on the laptops.

The sales team lost eight weeks of e-mails and diaries. We run a Microsoft Mail Postoffice for our internal mail system, so the laptop’s personal folder files (which contained all e-mails, contacts, diary, tasks, etc.) were stored locally on the hard disk of the laptops.

Because these files frequently break the 100-MB barrier (thanks, Microsoft, for writing us such efficient software), it was decided that users should back up the e-mails themselves by running a batch file on their desktops when they logged on and off. It’s not surprising, however, that backups hadn’t been done for several weeks.

The only user who had backed up his file was soon robbed of his sense of satisfaction when I discovered that the backup was corrupted. (I don’t know why this happened, but I suspect Windows 98 played a role.)

Lessons learned
What lessons can be learned from this situation?

I discovered that most laptops have a slot to be used with a security cord. You simply wrap the cord around the leg of a desk and lock it into the computer.

Of course, a lost key could be a potential problem. (But I think that’s a problem that could be solved by a couple of hours of hacksaw work by a suitably apologetic user.)

Another good idea is to keep a copy of Norton Ghost around (but don’t be tempted by the cheapo “personal edition” which is no use at all). Find some space on the network and make an image of your ideal “clean” installation. This can then be pushed out to new machines when it’s needed. Ghost is one of those programs that I’ve meant to start using for a long time, and I’m very glad that I finally have.

Another solution that seemed especially appealing after this theft was the bloody-minded approach of protecting the PC with a BIOS password. While this will do nothing to stop somebody from running off with the machine, I guess that there’s a certain amount of satisfaction gained by the idea that the thief won’t be able to use the machine.

Replacing the stolen goods
We now have three new laptops. They are bigger and meaner than the stolen laptops because the price came down in the last two months. The new models run SynchronX to keep a synchronized copy of all user files on an NT server, which is backed up nightly onto tape.

At first, SynchronX seemed excellent and was running quickly and efficiently. While I still think it’s a huge improvement over My Briefcase, I have found drawbacks. It seems that certain files take the program a couple of seconds to synchronize, so you end up with two copies whose modified date is only two seconds apart. But the newly synchronized copy is apparently newer than the original. This gets extremely confusing in use, when you’re synchronizing a few hundred files. If anybody has any better alternatives, I’d love to hear about them. Please post your ideas to this article.

When SynchronX runs, it also synchronizes the personal folder file that contains all e-mails. This is not a perfect solution, as a 100-MB PST file will take some time to copy over a 10-MB LAN connection every time the machine is synchronized. But this solution is better than the alternative since we know people won’t take the initiative themselves.

It can happen to you
A thief stealing laptops is just another example of a worst-case scenario that you should anticipate. After my experience in dealing with this mess, I believe laptops and hardware are stolen much more often than any of us realize.

I know it’s the worst part of the job to plan for and implement banal procedures such as backups. But if the worst happens, such precautions may ultimately save you time and your professional reputation.

Oh yes, and we now lock the door at all times.

Luke Mason is an IT manager for one of the largest CD, cassette, and DVD manufacturers in Great Britain.

Share your thoughts about policies or technology that either help prevent this problem or help make the aftermath easier to deal with. Post a comment below or send us an e-mail.

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