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Stop Laptop Predators With “Prey”

In December 2009, my worst nightmare came true. My laptop was stolen. A lot of important information, from rare pictures to my start-up business plans were gone. Some of the information was backed up to Google Docs and Evernote. The other content however, had to either be repurchased, recreated or it was simply irreplaceable. With no security software in place, I had no choice but to let it go and take it as a life lesson.

Luckily, I managed to get a new laptop. With my first notebook, I protected myself from digital threats such as viruses, malware, and keyloggers, but  I lacked “human theft” protection. Working on a very limited budget, I can’t afford premium tracking software at the moment so I settled for the next best thing: Free Theft Recovery Software. That’s where “Prey” comes in.

Prey is a free, open source tracking software. There aren’t many options, but it what it does have can give you peace of mind. If your laptop magically gets up and walks away, it will send you enough information to recover your property. It’s small, so it won’t take up memory and it doesn’t activate until you tell it to.

Prey's Control Panel is no-frills and straight to the point.

Upon installing the software, there’s a control panel with two modes: “Control Panel” or “Stand-Alone”. Control Panel mode uses Prey’s website to activate the software on your machine. Simply create an account, set it up to match your system’s configurations, and you’re all set. In Stand-Alone mode, it uses an internal URL checking service to see if an URL exists. Settings include a place to put email address and SMTP services to help get the reports out to you.  Stand-Alone is best suited for advanced users who don’t want their information stored elsewhere.

If your laptop is stolen, you will have to activate the software to start reporting. In Control Panel mode, simply log on to your Prey account and turn it on. In Stand-Alone mode, you’ll have to delete the URL, causing a 404 error that will trigger Prey. Once your laptop is turned on and logged on to the Net, Prey will be on the lookout for changes, and if there are any, Prey will start to work silently, keeping tabs on the sticky-fingered bandit including:

  • Grabbing a screenshot of your desktop.
  • Creating a (very detailed) report of all the programs and processes running at the time of the shot.
  • Providing an IP address (which will narrow down where the computer is).
  • And most importantly,it takes a candid picture of the person using the computer (possibly the theft) if you have a webcam on your laptop.

It will send this info to your control panel in Control Panel Mode (which will alert you via email) or a full report to the email in Stand-Alone Mode. Getting this report to the police can  increase your chances of retrieving your laptop. It will send you new reports at set intervals until it’s turned off (hopefully, with your laptop back in your hands).

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Prey isn’t a well-polished product (version at the time of this post is 0.3.3) and it shows. Your computer must have an “open account”, otherwise the theft may not be able to trigger the software on. There are links within the website that you click on, expecting to be taken to another location. Instead, the links refresh the page. There’s also “one minute it’s in English, next minute it’s in German” thing I keep running into. It does, however, run on almost operating system out there including Windows, Mac, Linux, and Android. Prey will give you that fighting chance you need to recover your laptop…and perhaps dole out some good old payback to evildoers that dared to pilfer your precious property.

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