Lisa Hoover 0 Junior Poster

Few things are more cringe-inducing than admitting to your boss that you lost your company-issued laptop. No matter how careful you are about securing your computer, sometimes all it takes is a second for it to vanish in a crowded airport or bus.

To increase the chances of getting your laptop back, consider installing tracking software designed to help determine where the computer is being used and possibly even who took it. Hopefully, your company would pick up the tab but, if not, the $50 or so you'll spend is worth it for peace of mind.

Jessica Mintz of the Associated Press writes this week about Retriever, a program that automatically displays your contact information at boot-up. That's perfect for getting back a laptop you've accidentally misplaced, and relies on the kindness of strangers. If your machine was stolen outright, however, Retriever can annoy the thief into (hopefully) returning it by displaying a bright yellow banner onscreen every 30 seconds.

If the crook accesses the Internet with your laptop, Retriever will collect information on ISPs and nearby WiFi access points, then send the information to the company's Web site to be shared with cops. Perhaps my favorite feature, though, is the way the application allows you to record a custom message so your laptop can call for help. Imagine a poor sap stealing your computer, sitting in an Internet cafe, and suddenly hearing, "I stole this computer!" blaring from its speakers.

I've already professed my love over at The Apple Blog for Undercover for the way this anti-theft software covers all the bases. Like Retriever, it can track external IP addresses and other Internet connectivity information, but it will also use a MacBook's iSight camera to help determine where a laptop disappeared by snapping screenshots and even glimpses of who's using it.

Once activated, Undercover tinkers with a computer's settings, eventually rendering it unusable. If a crook takes the stolen laptop in for repair, a screensaver activates to indicate the computer is stolen. The makers of Undercover are so confident in their product, they'll refund the money you spent on the app if your computer is never located.

One of the most well-known anti-theft software systems on the market is LoJack for Laptops. The standard edition is sufficient for securing a single computer, but if you want to lock down all of your company's laptops, then check out the corporate version. It gives you access to the "Theft Recovery Team" which works with more than 1,000 police departments across the country to call in local assistance to find your missing computers. The LoJack corporate edition, which includes geolocation tracking, also lets you wipe data remotely so sensitive information won't fall into someone else's hands.

Of course there's no way to prevent laptop theft entirely. Best practices dictate that you take precautionary steps whenever you take your computer out in public -- never leave it unattended and stow it for travel in a nondescript bag. If you are a victim of theft, however, at least these types of services offer some hope your computer will be returned. Thanks to the remote disabling options they offer, even if you never see your laptop again at least you'll take comfort knowing your anti-theft software has rendered your computer into nothing more than a large paperweight.