Originally created 03/01/97

The computer that phones home becomes a reality



My computer! It's ... it's ... GONE!

Those words - or similar panicky phrases - are becoming more common in this age of very stealable notebook, laptop and even desktop computers.

You type a few sentences in your portable PC, look away for a few moments, and - arggghhhh! Your multithousand-dollar investment has vanished.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if that missing-in-action piece of hardware could silently call for help? You know, find a telephone somewhere and call to let you know where it is? Sound like science fiction?

Thanks to an increasingly popular product called CompuTrace, the "PC that phones home" has become a reality.

Unlike other computer products that focus on deterring theft by using locks, adhesives or encryption software, CompuTrace - introduced late last year by a Canadian company called Absolute Software - takes an active part in the recovery process. Whenever a computer that uses CompuTrace is connected to a modem, the unit silently checks in to a central monitoring station on a regular basis. If the computer has not been reported stolen, nothing happens. But once a report of theft has been made to Absolute, a Caller-ID feature lets the center know the offender's phone number and address - even if that number is unlisted or ID-blocked.

The company then notifies law enforcement agencies and helps the customer through the process of getting the computer back.

Quoting statistics from Safeware, a computer insurer, Absolute reports that approximately $1.4 billion in PCs were stolen in 1996, up 20 percent from the previous year. The FBI notes that 90 percent of stolen computer equipment is never recovered.

Those numbers make the $29.95 cost of CompuTrace - plus an annual monitoring fee of $60 - seem a reasonable investment.

According to Bruce Nunn, Absolute's marketing vice president, corporations are the product's biggest clients. Internal theft, Mr. Nunn reports, turns out to be their biggest problem.

"In one case," he said, "an employee arranged to have a `pizza party' at his company every Friday. All the workers would gather in the cafeteria, leaving their laptops unguarded. Turned out the pizza delivery man was the accomplice. "He'd arrive carrying the pizzas in one of those multilayered pizza warmers, then go through the building and fill it with laptops."

Once plugged in, the computers "called" the CompuTrace base station, which registered the phone number the modem was using.

"That number was checked against the employee home-phone list, and the thief was identified," Mr. Nunn said.

CompuTrace runs on 486 or better PCs with internal modems running Microsoft Windows 3.1, Microsoft Windows for Workgroups 3.11 or Microsoft Windows 95; and DOS 5.0 or higherr.

Mr. Nunn says the product is invisible to the thief and automatically reloads even if the culprit tries to reformat the hard drive.

More information is available at (800) 220-0733.