What to do before your Apple product is stolen or lost

A friend of mine recently had his MacBook stolen. Sadly, it is likely gone for good. There are some things you can do to increase the likelyhood that you’ll get your beloved device back, or at least make sure that your data doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. But you need to do them before your device gets lost or stolen. Apple devices are often targets of theft because of their high market value and iconic style, so please please do what you can to protect your devices.

Which devices should I be worried about?

For any devices that regularly leave your home I highly recommend that you follow these precautions. Even for devices that never leave your home or office such as your iMac or family iPad it’s a good idea in case your home is ever robbed. Heck, these tips could even help you get back other stolen items if your Mac leads the police to the scum.

All Apple devices

  • Serial numbers. Write them down. If you don’t know where to find your serial numbers, Apple has published an article showing you where to look. You can also find them on your receipt if you purchased your product directly from Apple. This is not just good advice for Apple products, but for anything you’d be sad to lose.
  • Password. It’s important that you set up a password for your device. If entering the password is annoying because you’re a chronic message checker, consider using a delayed password, which is only required after you don’t use your device for 1, 5, 15, or 60 minutes. Leaving your device unlocked opens you up to identity theft.
  • Find my iPhone, iPad, iPod or Mac. Since iOS 4 and since Mac OS X Lion, Apple has offered a fantastic service that allows users to locate their devices using GPS and even interact with it to a limited extent. You can see its location on a map, you can send a message to the screen, you can make it play a sound that overrides the volume/mute settings, and if all hope is lost you can even wipe the disk to make sure that no one can get to your personal data (just remember that once you do this Find my iPhone will no longer work). Apple has published a straightforward set of setup instructions for iPhone and for Mac. The instructions for iPad and iPod Touch would be very similar. And don’t forget to test it to make sure it works! You can find Apple’s instructions for use here.
  • No Apple stickers. I love those little logo decals that Apple includes in their packages. Simple, iconic, and to me and my friends they say “I am proud to use Apple products”. But to thieves they probably just say “this car/house is full of premium electronics.”
  • Photos of children and puppies. Seriously. It’s been shown that lost wallets with photos of cute babies, children, or puppies are far more likely to be returned to the owner. Why wouldn’t it also work with wallpaper on smartphones and Macs? This step probably won’t keep your computer from getting stolen, but it if you simply lose it this will probably help you get it back faster. My little nephew isn’t only adorable and amazing, he’s also great computer security.
  • Label. Use a labeler such as a P-Touch to put your name and phone number on the bottom of your device. My last MacBook carried the label without peeling for 5 years, and when I pulled it off a Magic Eraser wiped the residue off perfectly. If you’re one of my clients I’ll be glad to bring my label machine over on my next visit.

Additional things you can do for Mac

  • Firmware password. Apple provides a way to require a password if your computer tries to start up from anything other than your copy of OS X. This means that if you enable the feature, any time you replace the hard drive, erase the hard drive, or try to start up using a recovery disc, your computer will demand that you prove that you are you. This prevents a thief from simply erasing or replacing your OS and skirting your protection software. This can be circumvented with older models, however, if they really know what they are doing. Models beginning around 2011, however, can only have the password bypassed by bringing the computer into an Apple Store or other authorized service provider.
  • Secure filesystem. If your computer contains extra-sensitive data you might consider enabling FileVault. This feature of OS X enables you to encrypt your entire hard drive, preventing anyone from popping the disk out of your computer, plugging it into another computer, and having full access to your data by overriding your password. Two things to remember before enabling FileVault – it will slow your computer down slightly so you’ll have to decide how important performance is to you, and don’t ever ever forget your password because you’ll probably lose your data forever.
  • Honeypot account. You’ll need to give the thief enough rope to hang themselves with. You could turn on the built-in “guest” account but because it’s so limited they might not be as likely to use the account much. Instead, create a standard account (not an admin account) and leave the password blank. Maybe give it the name “User”. Now they will be more likely to use your computer, completely unaware that you have some awesome remote-access software running. As I mentioned above, make sure that the wallpaper for the dummy user account has wallpaper of the cutest baby you can find.
  • Backup. While it can be infuriating to lose a Mac, it can be devastating to lose the contents of your hard drive. For this reason I recommend making sure that you allow Time Machine to run frequently. You can often find USB hard drives on Amazon for less than $100 that will work great. I recommend a drive that is at least twice as large as the drive in your computer. Time Machine is quite possibly the greatest consumer backup software available, and it’s free on your Mac.
  • Third-Party software. Apple’s Find My Mac is fantastic because it’s free, easy, and built-in. However, there are third-party solutions out there that can do even more. Personally, I use Undercover. It’s $49 but it’s licenced to you forever for 1 Mac (you can transfer it when you buy a new model) and if your Mac is stolen and they can’t help you recover it they will refund your payment. Undercover will work with law enforcement to provide logs, network information, screen captures, and even photos taken with the Mac’s camera.

I’ve provided lots of starting points for each of these steps that should be enough for you to secure your system on your own, but if you have further questions or if you would like help with getting any of these set up, be sure to send me an email!