How to track a lost or stolen PC, notebook, tablet or smartphone

Losing a device—especially one that contains sensitive personal or business information—can be the source of endless headaches. Here's an open-source anti-theft tracker that can help protect your data and get your hardware back.

Time to tackle a question from the old e-mailbag:

I believe that prevention is better than cure, so I'd like to put in place a mechanism that would help me in the event that my notebook -- Windows -- is lost or stolen. Can you suggest anything that won't break the bank?

Yes I can, and the pricing starts at a very reasonable $0.

Introducing Prey, an open source, cross-platform anti-theft tracker that lets you keep track of all your devices easily in one place. Whatever your device, chances are Prey has you covered as there are installers available for Windows, Mac, Linux, Ubuntu, Android, and iOS.

Prey is easy to use. First off, you download and install the right version for your hardware. Then, after you've created an account and got it set up the way you want, you can forget about it until the day that your device is lost or stolen.

As soon as you discover that your hardware has been lost or stolen, you can activate prey by logging into your account and select the device 'missing-in-action'. Then, Prey's servers send a signal to the device -- either over the Web or with a text message -- that kicks Prey into action, gathering information such as location, hardware details and network status information. You can also capture screen shots, take pictures with the forward-facing camera, and even lock the system down to prevent further intrusion.

Prey offers a free, unlimited, 3-device account for anyone wanting to give the software a try. There are also premium account options that increase the device limit and add features such as automated deployment and full SSL encryption of all gathered data.

Prevention is—by far—better than cure, as the reader puts it. Putting a mechanism in place for recovering your lost or stolen hardware before the worst happens gives you a fighting chance of being able to find your hardware, or at worst, keep your data away from prying eyes.

Image source: Prey.