Tech Tips

December 07, 2017

Thieves Don’t Have "Laptop Detectors" (But Protect Your Laptop’s Safety Anyway)

If you’ve heard that thieves have a device that can detect laptops in car trunks, they don’t. But you should still exercise some caution traveling with your laptop. Here’s the truth about “laptop detectors” and laptop safety measures.

Can thieves wave a device at your car’s trunk & detect the laptop you left in there?

No, but this long-lasting tech myth keeps reappearing. Let’s make the truth clear—thieves DO steal laptops out of trunks. However, they don't use a "laptop detector." They just use different methods to know which trunks contain the laptops.

Thieves Aren’t Using “Laptop Detectors” to Steal Your Laptop

The myth originated around 2009/2010, when the mobile device craze really picked up. It goes like this:

  1. Thief buys a simple scanning device from Radio Shack or Amazon, sometimes called an “RF Signal Detector.”
  2. Thief walks through a parking lot near a mall or gym.
  3. The scanner beeps when it detects a mobile device (laptop, phone, tablet) stored in a car’s trunk.
  4. Thief breaks open the trunk, steals the device, and walks away.

The catch? These “laptop detectors” don’t live up to the hype.

You CAN find devices that will detect battery and RF waves (here’s one such device). It’s meant to detect small electronics. The thing is, its frequency range is 1MHz-6.5GHz—a tremendous spectrum! This makes it useless for theft; even if you could detect a laptop inside a car trunk, you couldn’t tell which car it was in!

Sources abound disproving the myth. Here are two for you to check.

Laptop Detectors: Truth or Myth? – Kong Technology

Theft: Can Thieves Detect Laptops in Cars? – Quora

Nevertheless, we field questions about laptop safety in cars all the time. Why?

Well, thieves DO steal from cars all the time. There must be some explanation, right? They’re using some method to find out which cars have laptops in the trunk, but what method?

A low tech one.  They watched you put your device in there.

It’s easy for a thief to sit in their car and watch people around them. If they see you put a laptop case in the trunk, close it, and walk away, that’s where they strike. In the Quora post, a former police officer talked about how they busted a group of thieves using this exact routine. It’s just patience and observation.

What should you do instead?

Public Laptop Safety Practices to Follow

Keep your laptop safe from thieves by preventing them from seeing it.

  1. If you’re parking at the airport, don’t leave devices in the trunk. Leave them at home, or take them with you.
  2. If you plan to stop somewhere for a while (e.g., going to the gym), put your laptop in the trunk before you leave the house. That way no one sees you putting it in there on arrival.
  3. Carry your laptop in a nondescript briefcase or bag when walking around. That way thieves can’t easily tell if you have a laptop on you.
  4. Make sure you have reliable cloud backups for your laptop. If you're thinking, "I back up my laptop to a USB drive," you still need a cloud backup. Never rely on one form of backup for a device that travels around with you...susceptible to theft.
    • Nothing wrong with using a USB backup drive (as long as it doesn't go in the laptop's bag!). But if you keep a cloud backup for all company laptops, even if a thief nabs one, you still have a safe copy of the data.
  5. Make sure you've enabled Remote Wipe. Remote Wipe erases all data on a stolen device. IT can launch the command from another computer in seconds. If it's enabled on your laptop & phone, of course.
  6. Put an asset tag on it! We wrote about asset tagging and how it helps if/when a laptop's stolen in September 2018: Asset Tag Your IT Hardware! - Cyber Fu Tip 


Download a PDF version of this list here. Good for supporting your "we need better cybersecurity" argument next time: Rules of Paw for Laptop Safety During Travel.

Thieves are On the Lookout. You Should Be Too.

Remember:  Thieves steal. They will use whatever tricks they can to steal from you. They don’t have a “laptop detector” device to help them out, but that doesn’t make you safer.

Make a habit of verifying your laptop is safe wherever you go. Otherwise, “just stopping to pick up take-out” can easily turn into the most expensive dinner you've ever ordered.


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