Protecting Your Laptop In Airports

If you’re like most U.S. travelers, you bring your electronics when you travel by air. You should always keep your items close to you, but laptop protection is especially important when you’re getting ready to fly.

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According to a study cited by Lonely Planet, 88 percent of business travelers, and 85 percent of holiday-goers, bring their smartphone when they fly the friendly skies. And when it comes to laptops, a full 82 percent of business travelers lug theirs along, as do nearly half of those going on vacation. That’s a lot of laptops in one place. And it’s an irresistible mecca for thieves.

The “latest” hard numbers we could find — actual statistics — are from back in the dark ages of 2008, with PCWorld saying that around 10,278 laptops were lost or stolen in 36 major US airports every week, with 65 percent not reclaimed. They note that 2,000 laptops were lost at medium-sized airports, with a 69 percent reclamation rate. Airports, they quote the Federal Trade Commmision as saying, are places where laptops are easily stolen.

[For more tips on securing your laptop anywhere, check out our Security Tips For Laptops.]

And, while we don’t have more recent hard numbers, the trend appears to continue into the present day, with the ease of snatching laptops in TSA security checkpoints; taking laptops inadvertently left unattended out or in bags; theft from TSA agents themselves, and theft from overhead compartments. Even a major decrease in laptop thefts in airports would still mean thousands are stolen every week.

It’s a wild world out there, and you best clutch that computer tight. Here are some tips to help keep that computer — and your work, and your corporate data, and your personal information, and any other sensitive data — safe in that environment. 

Take precautions when you go through security. Option one: your laptop has to be in a “checkpoint friendly bag”, which means bags with laptop-only compartments (there are several brands). In one sense, you run the risk of everyone knowing you’re carrying a laptop. On the other hand, you can more easily keep track of a bag than a laptop itself. Otherwise, you have to remove your laptop from the bag, stick it in a plastic bin, and let it go through the X-Ray machine all by its lonesome.

This is when many laptop thefts could occur. So place your laptop in its own plastic bin, and send it through last of your bins — so you can keep an eye on it as long as possible. Make it the first thing you grab after you’re wanded — and if you’re selected for a random check, ask if they can move your laptop to a secure location while they do so. Doesn’t hurt to ask.

Don’t carry a laptop bag that screams “LAPTOP INSIDE!” Avoid shoulder bags, expensive laptop bags, etc. in favor of a locking backpack or simpler bag. A fancy over-the-shoulder briefcase? Just an invitation for thieves to target you when you’re vulnerable: when you set the bag down in the restroom, for example (don’t think they won’t reach for while you’re occupied), or when your back is turned while you’re eating or checking your phone. It also marks you as someone who’s going to drop a laptop in a plastic bin at the TSA checkpoint.

Don’t ever leave your laptop unattended. Ever. Just don’t. It sounds ridiculous, but you would be surprised. And don’t ask a stranger to watch it for you, either. 

Don’t stow it in your checked luggage. CNN notes that between 2010 and 2014, 30,621 claims were made against TSA for “missing valuables,” most of them from checked luggage. JFK in New York had the most claims, followed by LAX, Orlando International, and Miami. In Los Angeles, police specifically found airport workers stealing computers. There have also been reports of luggage stolen from baggage claim. So unless you want to deal with the hassle of the police, TSA claims, and insurance claims — don’t check your laptop. 

Don’t accidentally leave it on the plane. It can be tempting to stash your slimmer laptop in the seat compartment in front of you. But if you leave it there, an unscrupulous employee, like those detailed in a CNN expose, may just take it instead of reporting it. This is illegal, by the way, so if you do leave something, make sure you call the airline and file a police report. 

Password protect it. Make sure your laptop is protected with a strong password. You can also upgrade and add a biometric lock to your laptop. This way, when a thief discovers they can’t access the computer, they may just toss it — and your data is safe. 

Add tracking software. If your laptop is lost or stolen, you can find it again with any number of handy apps. Techradar recommends FrontDoor, LoJack, and Prey. You’ve got to shell out for all of them but Prey, but it could be worth it when you’re in an airport, frantic, and suddenly missing a laptop.

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