Welcome to PC Advisor's ultimate guide to laptop-theft prevention, full of smart, simple ways to secure your portable PC, and return it if it gets lost.

Sadly in today's society one of your biggest worries will be how to keep your valuable IT equipment such as laptops, PDAs and iphones and the even more precious data they contain out of the hands of thieves. Laptop and mobile phone thefts from parked cars and conference rooms may grab headlines, but a far greater number of devices simply get left behind in cabs, on trains, and even on airplanes.

YouGetItBack.com reports that 1 million mobiles were lost or stolen last year in Britain. At Heathrow, the UK's busiest airport, an average of around 120 laptops are handed in every month, of which at least 15 or so will end up at auction because there is no way of returning them to their rightful owner.

Most of us can weather the physical loss of a laptop or mobile, especially if they are covered by an insurance policy. But the files on the machine may raise more-troubling issues - they can hold our own financial data and sometimes even data that relates to the companies we work for, and they are more than likely not backed up. You can take several key steps to protect both your laptop and your data. By adopting these measures, you'll greatly reduce your risk of losing key hardware and data.

Track your laptop with an ID

The first step is to slap an ID tag on each laptop, BlackBerry, digital camera, and USB stick you own and record it with a recovery service. An astonishingly large number of people never record even the serial numbers of their equipment, making it impossible for authorities to reunite found items with their rightful owners.

Tracking tags give you an opportunity to enter serial number information as you tag each item, after which you can use the recovery service as a basic inventory system. (You should definitely maintain serial-number records, as well as purchase receipts, in case of insurance claims.)

Recovery services report recovery rates of 75 percent and higher on tagged items. Evidently, most people who find laptops are honest, and by offering prepaid returns and a reward on the tag, which usually lists a free phone number, the service makes it easy to do the right thing.

Each item is registered on the web with identifying information; then the recovery service usually contacts you to arrange return if an item is found. The price is usually around £7 per label, with quantity discounts. Vendors that offer labeling and recovery services include BoomerangIt, TrackItBack, and YouGetItBack.com.

Some of these companies sell lifetime service for a fixed price, while others use a yearly or period subscription model. Some charge a recovery fee if an item is found and TrackItBack will even send you a free replacement tag if the original comes off.

The recovery firms unanimously cite privacy considerations and their 24-hour phone service as reasons to use their labels instead of just a taped-on business card. The labels themselves may deter theft, as they render an item harder to fence and they are available for portable projectors, keys, Bluetooth headsets, GPS devices, luggage, and more - not just laptops and mobile phones. Anything that moves can and probably should be protected.

NEXT PAGE: Smart software to track stolen laptops and the importance of backing up.