I was looking forward to catching up on some work on the flight home. Before sitting down and fastening my seatbelt, I reached into the overhead bin to grab my laptop out of the zipped side pocket of my carry-on bag.
Hmm. My first sweep came up empty-handed.
“Don’t panic yet,” I told myself.
After dragging the carry-on down from the bin, I wedged it on my seat so I could inspect the zipped side pocket more carefully while passengers made their way past me down the aisle. It was empty.
My husband double-checked. Still empty.
I frantically unzipped every compartment inside and out — even ones only large enough to hold pencils — and threw all the toiletries, hairbrushes and papers out of the suitcase and onto my seat. My laptop was gone.
(MORE: Tips to Keep Your Laptop Safe From Thieves)
When you lose something, the conventional wisdom is to retrace your steps. But after a plane door closes, you can only do that mentally. So, I made a to-do list of everyone I needed to call upon returning home — the hotel, the airport and the airline — just in case the computer turned up. Could it really have disappeared?
Why a Lost Laptop Is So Traumatic
Yes, travelers have far worse experiences — e.g. being mauled by lions in Africa, becoming deathly ill on a ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, falling off steep cliffs in the Andes — but losing a laptop is traumatic for a variety of reasons: the hassle, the expense, the potential for identity theft and the guilt and regret of having let it happen.
A 2008 survey commissioned by Dell Computers estimates business travelers alone lose 12,000 laptops in U.S. airports each week. The same study reported that 80 percent are never recovered.
Unfortunately, I suspect I’m not the only person who has compounded that misery by storing passwords, phone contacts and other personal information on their laptops.
5 Tips If Your Laptop Goes Missing
When your laptop is missing or stolen while traveling, there are five things you need to do:
1. Report the loss as soon as possible. Call local police, airline baggage offices and airport lost and found offices (on both ends of your trip). If it is a business laptop, report the loss to your employer. If there is any other location where it could have been left or gone missing, add that to your list of calls.
After I called our hotel, the management checked our room and screened security videos to see if they could spot anyone tampering with my carry-on in the few minutes it was left unattended (after the bellman brought our luggage to the lobby while we were still paying our bill). They found nothing.
If you have an Apple laptop (as I did), don’t bother reporting the loss to the company. Although customer service exudes sympathy — “We are so sorry for your loss” — they don’t have a system for tracking serial numbers of lost laptops. When I purchased a replacement, as a courtesy Apple extended a prorated refund on the unused portion of the prior AppleCare service contract.
2. Inform credit bureaus. Because of the risk of identity theft (someone fraudulently using your personal information for financial gain), you'll want to report the loss immediately to one of the three major credit bureaus. They will place a free fraud alert on your account, notify the other credit bureaus and make it more difficult for someone to obtain credit or open new accounts in your name.
Monitoring the report will help you spot any suspicious activity or inaccurate information. Since you are entitled to a free credit report from each agency annually, you can obtain one every four months by spacing the requests.
(MORE: The Truth About Those New Free Credit Scores)
3. Determine whether the loss is covered by insurance. Check your homeowner's or renter's policy. Some policies cover computer loss, although often with a deductible. We were very fortunate. A $30-per-year rider we had added to our homeowners policy reimbursed the entire replacement cost of the computer (up to $2,100).
If the laptop had been purchased with an American Express Platinum Card and wasn’t covered by any other insurance policy, AmEx’s Purchase Protection plan would have covered losses of up to $10,000 per occurrence for eligible items lost, stolen or damaged within 90 days of purchase. (My toddler laptop was six months old).
4. Attempt to recover lost data. Until I left home, I regularly backed up my laptop data on an Apple Time Capsule so I was able to easily retrieve and know what I had lost. Always keep up-to-date copies of important files (backed up to a cloud or on a hard drive) in the event your computer is lost or otherwise compromised.
5. Prevent it from ever happening again. My laptop never resurfaced and the odds of seeing it again are slim to nil. Getting over the loss hasn’t been easy. Concerns about identity theft still hang over me, as well as the guilt of not having done enough to prevent the loss.
Looking back, however, this experience taught me a few things that can help avoid a repeat experience.
Labeling your laptop can help; just tape your name and phone number on the exterior. That way, if your device is misplaced, a Good Samaritan might be able to return it.
Being vigilant when traveling is essential. Place your laptop in the hotel safe each time you leave your room. Never leave bags that have electronics or other valuables out of your sight in hotels, on cruise ships or in airports — even for minutes. Even if you are exhausted, don’t be tempted to hand over your carry-on to anyone else. While bellmen and porters may be trustworthy, they are busy and can’t be as vigilant as you.
When passing through airport security checkpoints, develop a routine for placing your laptop on the conveyer belt and retrieving it. Place it in the last bin (after your shoes and coat) so you can watch it go into the screener before you meet the computer at the other side. Consider purchasing a checkpoint-friendly laptop bag to avoid the time-consuming hassle of taking the laptop in and out of your bag.
Make sure your passwords are tough to crack by using complex patterns of letters, numbers and symbols, so a crook will have a harder time getting into your accounts. Avoid using the same passwords for multiple accounts. And don’t store passwords on your computer (or smartphone). Instead, consider using a password manager, like LastPass or SplashID Safe, that generates and encrypts impossible-to-guess passwords and remembers them for you.
To protect your email account, use a two-step verification process such as the kind offered by Gmail.
You might also want to use device-tracking software. Apple has a simple-to-use Find My iPhone, iPad and Mac feature that lets owners track the locations of missing devices and lock them if they suspect they've gotten into the wrong hands (I made the foolish mistake of not activating the feature). Some technology experts recommend installing anti-theft software programs, like Prey.
Irene S. Levine is a psychologist, lifestyle and travel journalist, and member of the Society of American Travel Writers who produces MoreTimeToTravel.com, a blog offering advice and inspiration for travelers over 50.
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