Never underestimate the tenacity of a 19-year-old. When Kait Duplaga of White Plains, N. Y., had her laptop stolen — along with electronics...

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Never underestimate the tenacity of a 19-year-old. When Kait Duplaga of White Plains, N.Y., had her laptop stolen — along with electronics she and her roommates owned — she didn’t despair. She cleverly used a built-in piece of Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard) technology to catch the alleged thieves.

Duplaga, an Apple Store employee, had turned on Back to My Mac on her computer. This Leopard feature allows remote access to a computer when the right network conditions are met. A few days after her computer was stolen, a friend of Duplaga’s spotted her in iChat, and sent her a text message by cellphone congratulating her on the computer’s return.

Possessor unaware

The machine’s current possessor wasn’t aware that Duplaga stayed logged in to iChat, and so she showed up there.

She logged in to .Mac on another computer (via the .Mac system preference pane), and used the built-in screen sharing to access her purloined laptop. Screen sharing provides both a view of the remote screen as well as control of the keyboard and mouse.

Duplaga reportedly fired up Photo Booth, Apple software that lets you snap a series of photos through the iSight camera built into all current Mac notebooks, and grabbed shots of one of two gentlemen later arrested for the apartment theft.

She copied files using file sharing that included pictures of the other charged individual.

We can’t all be as quick-witted as Duplaga, nor could we rely on Back to My Mac to work reliably in situations such as these. Back to My Mac requires, among other things, specific router settings on the network with the computer you want to access remotely.

It also has the disadvantage that a thief with some Mac knowledge could simply log out of .Mac by clicking a single button, and disable the service.

But you can take steps for theft deterrence and recovery that might let you avoid a sad call to your insurance company — or parent.

You can’t theft-proof anything, but you can deter it.

First, permanently engrave your driver’s license number on the computer. This is something recommended by the police as part of the national but informal Operation ID program. (In some jurisdictions, you can get a unique ID that you register with the police.) Mac owners will find this engraving abhorrent, but it’s a good tool for deterrence and recovery.

Second, install computer locks on all your equipment, anchored to something secure. All Macs and most major brand computers from other makers have a standard, so-called Kensington security slot, after the company that developed it. You can buy a key or combination lock from many firms, however.

Picking locks

These locks and cables can be overcome: The attachment can be broken out of the security slot on some computers, the lock can be picked and a bolt cutter can sever a cable.

However, outside of picking a lock, burglars can’t easily pawn a busted-up computer or one that has a security cable hanging from it. The amount of time it takes to deal with a security cable may deter the thief.

Third, consider installing a motion sensor. In researching software, I was surprised to find just one current project, still in testing: TheftSensor from Orbicule (currently free, Available just for the MacBook right now, TheftSensor uses the Apple Remote as a way to arm an alarm. (The Apple Remote is used to put a Mac into a kind of full-screen media player mode; you may never have unpacked it.)

All Mac laptops feature a sudden motion sensor (SMS), which detects whether a computer is falling, so that a hard drive can be protected.

This SMS can be used to check for any motion. The MacBook has to be active (not in sleep mode), and when enabled TheftSensor sounds an unmutable alarm when the laptop is moved or the lid closed.

For theft recovery, you can install software that silently checks in with servers to see if it’s been reported stolen and engages a recovery mode if and when you report its loss. This software can’t be removed or disabled without an administrative password.

Although there are four packages compatible with Leopard (most also with Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger), I recommend Undercover from Orbicule. For $49, Undercover uses very little horsepower and network bandwidth to stay in touch with Orbicule’s servers.

When it’s reported missing, the computer starts snapping desktop and iSight pictures, and sending network information to Orbicule, which will work (at no cost) with whatever local law enforcement is involved.

If the computer isn’t recovered, Undercover activates Plan B, which involves dimming the screen, as if the computer is broken.

If the stolen computer is brought into an Apple Store or a known Apple repair shop and put on the network, Undercover starts yelling (using Apple’s text-to-speech software) that the computer is stolen while displaying contact information on its screen, including the promise of a reward (paid by Orbicule at no cost to you).

LoJack for Laptops from Computrace offers a similar service that requires a subscription of $50 per year or $100 for three years ( Orbicule recommends enabling the special Guest account in Leopard that allows a low-privilege and password-free login on a computer so that a thief is more likely to hook into a network.

After reading about Duplaga’s miraculous Back to My Mac aided recovery, I purchased and installed Undercover. While Back to My Mac works in the right circumstances, I’d hate to stake my laptop’s life on it.

Glenn Fleishman writes the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to More columns at