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How to track down a stolen gadget

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A month after the break-in, Kaufman handed police a trove of images and information about his MacBook's illegitimate new owner. Since burglars often fence stolen property, Kaufman couldn't be sure if the young man in these pictures was the actual robber, but he provided police with the person's work e-mail account, tying the suspect to a local taxi company.

After some extra nudging from news outlets and social media, including Kauf­man's own blog (called This Guy Has My MacBook), the police arrested the man on May 31 and reunited Kaufman with his missing laptop.

Prey performs many of the same features for Macs, PCs, and Linux computers – without the annual fee. If your laptop goes missing, Prey will continuously search for an Internet connection. Once it can phone home, the software will e-mail its owner with approximate coordinates.

Unfortunately, Prey and Hidden only work if the computer is turned on, and a smart crook could wipe your hard drive, removing the software. Still, applications such as Hidden and Prey are "definitely a helpful tool," says Ms. Joshi, with the Oakland police. "It's not very expensive, so if people feel comfortable doing so, they should look into installing it."

Go to hiddenapp.com and preyproject.com for details and downloads.

Phones: Between satellite data, Wi-Fi triangulation, and cell-tower signals, mobile phones are one of the easiest devices to track down – if you have the right software.

Apple has a free Find My iPhone feature. The service, part of Apple's MobileMe, will pinpoint a lost or stolen ­iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch to within a few yards. The owner can send an alert that will pop up on the device's screen, such as a message that reads, "If found, please contact …" Apple can also remotely add password protection or erase the hard drive entirely.

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