Your car alarm is armed, your home has a state-of-the-art security system, and your important papers are in a bank safe deposit box. But how safe is your laptop?

Ever since the notebook computer was introduced, people have been fairly careless about them, leaving them at bus stops and airports. And thieves quickly saw the potential black market value of the lightweight machines.

In 2001, more than 591,000 laptops were reported stolen in the U.S. That’s a fairly large number. And what’s more telling is that the theft rate is up a whopping 53 percent from the previous year. Obviously, this is a problem that’s only getting worse.

In an article on CNet last year, San Francisco Police Department burglary detail inspector Richard Leon told the news service that laptops have become the electronic item of choice for most burglars.

"At one time, people stole televisions; then they stole VCRs. Now, laptops are the most stolen article of property in San Francisco," he said. "We get reports of hundreds of laptops stolen each month."

In the past, victims had little recourse, and important data – plus a fairly expensive piece of business equipment – were lost forever at best, and in the hands of a business competitor at worst.

Well those days are over. Nowadays, notebook computer manufacturers and software makers are selling James Bond-type gadgets to help retrieve lost or stolen laptops, and in some cases, catching thieves in the act.

Last year, IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Dell started offering new software – embedded within the laptops – to help combat the problem.

Say hello to laptop LoJacks.

Instead of using a hidden transmitter like LoJacks, however, software is embedded on notebook hard drives, allowing systems to be tracked as soon as they are connected to the Internet. It works for dial-up connections, T-1 lines or cable modems, allowing investigators to zero in on the thief’s location within seconds. Pretty nifty.

TrackIT, another high-tech device (especially helpful for forgetful execs who leave laptops at X-ray machines or bus stops) utilizes a keychain alarm that sounds if you and your laptop are separated by more than 40 feet.

Of course if a thief only wants the laptop for the data stored on its hard drive and never intends to go online, that’s a different problem – but there’s still a solution. These same tracking systems allow the owner to request that a signal be sent to the computer that would delete all information on the hard drive.

Most IT managers will tell you that employees are fairly lax about using simple locks to thwart in-house thieves, so these kinds of high-tech tracking devices are the next best thing.

As notebook computers get lighter, hold more data and travel more often, it’s time to get serious about laptop safety.

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