Few situations are quite as terrifying as having to leave your laptop at a café table for a quick visit to the restroom – and with good reason. Theft is a nasty, but ubiquitous risk. Luckily, by installing Prey, you can track, control and find lost devices if should ever come to that. Here's how.

It is generally said that a laptop is stolen in Europe every 53 seconds – with London as its “theft-capital” and airports as the primary site of crime. What this says about Heathrow is hardly surprising. But there are also many other, less obvious hunting grounds for thieves to strike, such as train stations, public transport and shopping centers, in which a single moment of carelessness might make the difference between a delightful day and the woeful loss of your precious and expensive devices. No need to despair if it should come to the worst, however: Here's how you can track and successfully reclaim laptops and smartphones in the case of an abduction. See also: How to track Smartphones even after they were stolen

Prey is an open source security tool that can not only locate your laptop and smartphone remotely via GPS, but is also able to subtly control key functions and give you the option of locking them down completely. In short, if the tool has been installed on a device that has gone missing, you can head to Prey's website and report it as stolen. Once the thief connects to the internet, Prey will regularly send you e-mails with data such as the approximate location of your device, a screenshot of the current desktop activity and several webcam or smartphone photos, if possible. Alternatively, you can also activate Prey with an SMS (containing “GO PREY” by default) if you are using it on a Smartphone and wish to get immediate results. It goes without saying that all this can be invaluable information for the police and can help the quest to retrieve your property immensely.

Tip: Specialized security locks have become failry affordable by now and can help prevent your Laptop from being stolen in the first place. Additionally, other precautions like frequent backups and a good encryption strategy can minimize the risk of losing data and letting it fall into the wrong hands.

Installation and Configuration - How to prepare Prey

Prey is currently available in version 0.5.9 and runs on Windows, Linux, Mac, iOS and Android systems. Download the setup file your for your respective system and install it. If you have never used Prey before, you will want to select the "New user" option from the menu to continue.

During installation, you might also be asked to choose from two mutually exclusive “Setup reporting methods”, which determine how Prey can be woken up. The easier one of the two is called “Prey + Control Panel” and requires you to register for free on http://panel.preyproject.com/ in order to confirm your account via e-mail. Alternatively, you may also choose the more elaborate “Prey Standalone” option, which drops the web panel and requires the use of your own webspace for a dummy website. By entering the URL into Prey, it will start to monitor this website and check regularly whether or not it is still accessible. If your device has been stolen, simply take your website offline, thus causing Prey to activate.

After your accound has been set up, you might also be offered to create visible shortcuts for Prey on your desktop, which is both unnecessary and somewhat contradictory to its stealthy purpose, so its better not to do so.

Once the setup has finished, your current device will have been added to the watchlist of your Prey account and the client will integrate itself deeply into your OS, so that will neither be visible, nor removable by the thief (typically only occupying 5 MB of memory in Windows). While dormant, its only function is to subtly check online every 10 minutes to see if the device has been reported as stolen.

This might also be of interest: Recover your Laptop with Free LockItTight

Obviously, this also highlights Prey's only flaw: It has to establish a connection to the internet to work. If the thief is too smart to do so however, Prey will automatically search for Wi-Fi networks in range and attempt to connect to them on its own. The use of a Wi-Fi connections has other benefits as well: If the device isn't connected to a GPS service that would be able pin down its location, Prey can resort to equallly useful geolocation information from Wi-Fi networks.

Tip: To make it harder for the thief to simply format your hard drive, it is advisable to lock your Bios with a password after making sure that your boot order prioritizes your hard drive over all other drives. While this doesn't grant perfect security from formatting, it certainly makes it harder. For the same reason, you can lure the thief into using your laptop as it comes by removing your account password or setting up an unprotected “bait account”.

Reporting devices as stolen – How to activate and use Prey

If you've decided to use the „Control Panel“ method, you have multiple options to handle thefts. The first thing to do in any case is to head to the Prey website, select your device and switch the small slider to “Missing”. Prey will then ask you to define the time delay between each individual report. After that, you may also want to activate the feature "Enable On-Demand" to be able to request updates on the whereabouts of your device regardless of that timer (requires the Pro-version).

The section "Information to gather" then determines which kind of data Prey is supposed to retrieve and transmit with each one of its updates. Naturally, of particular importance are "Geo" (collects information about the postion of the device), "Network" (IP-Address), "Session" (desktop screenshots - especially useful if the the culprit uses websites with incriminating information such as Facebook or Twitter) and "Webcam" (for sneaky photos), which should all be active by default. If not, simply remedy that.

If you suspect to be in close vicinity to your device, you can even enable an acoustic 30 seconds alarm or send the thief a message. Both options can be found under “Actions to perform”. Obviously, don't use these functions carelessly or to taunt your adversary as stealth is key. Once discovered, Prey is quickly rendered useless and thieves will likely try to get rid of it in one way or another.

Lastly, if all this work has payed off and Prey has indeed helped you locate your lost device, it is still strongly discouraged to approach the thief on your own. Instead, contact the police (if you haven't already done so) and provide them with the evidence that you have collected. Examples from the past have shown that they appreciate all clues and will be more than happy to help.