How to Recover A Stolen Computer With Prey Project


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Prey Project Tips

Don’t Let the Bad Guys Win!

Gear Review

I recovered my stolen computer using Prey Project software. Learn how to properly install & use this powerful free tracking program on your laptop.

If you haven’t done so already, you need to download Prey Project immediately after reading this guide. It’s a free computer tracking and recovery program that works around the world.

In my opinion this software should be included on every computer out of the box.

Prey runs in the background. You won’t even know it’s there. It will save your ass if your computer ever gets lost or stolen!

But it needs to be set up correctly to work.

My Personal Experience

I first heard about Prey Project after following Sean Power”s stolen laptop story on Twitter. I immediately downloaded the program.

Months later, my MacBook Pro computer was stolen after I made some bad decisions while traveling in Panama.

I never thought it would happen to me.

But it did — and the theft was devastating to my life as a digital nomad.

Saved By Prey

Luckily I’d installed Prey Project on my laptop. But because I didn’t configure the software correctly, it took 3 months before the program began working they way it should. In the meantime I’d already purchased a replacement computer — when I probably didn’t need to.

Eventually I recovered my stolen computer from over 2000 miles away. But I could have done it a lot sooner, and with much less hassle, had I changed some settings immediately after downloading Prey.

The following guide will show you how to properly install and configure Prey Project.

Prey Project

Download Prey Project for Free

Installing Prey On Your Computer

The first step is to get this free software on your computer.
It works with Windows, Apple OSX, Android, and iPhone.

Click Here to Download Prey Project

Once installed, you’ll be able to log into the Prey Project website using the link they send via email. From there you can check the status of the software on your computer. Make sure you are online for this to work. It may take an hour or so before it’s active.

Prey Project Settings

The software is equipped with many different alarms and tracking capabilities. Once you’ve logged in online to the Prey Project control panel, click on the name of your computer to adjust settings. You’ll want to change a few of them from their default properties.

  • Geo: ON
  • Network: ON
  • Session: ON
  • Get Screenshot: YES
  • Get Modified Files: NO
  • Get Running Programs: NO
  • Webcam: ON
  • Alarm: OFF
  • Alert: OFF
  • Lock: OFF
  • Secure: OFF

In my opinion you’ll want to keep all the alarms off at first. You don’t want to scare your “prey” into ditching the laptop before you get any good information about them.

Modified files and running programs aren’t really necessary for recovery, and if you have a password protected user account (we’ll go over that later), it shouldn’t matter. Keep it simple. :D

Prey Project Settings

Prey Project Settings

Your Laptop: Settings

You’ll also need to adjust a few settings on your computer to ensure Prey Project will work correctly. First of all, if you don’t use one already, create a password protected user account. This forces you to log in with a password every time you start your laptop or de-hibernate (I think I just made that word up).

Now if your computer is ever stolen, the thieves will not be able to access your personal information without your password.

Next, create a Guest account on your computer. This is where I screwed up when my laptop was recently stolen.

The guest account is a separate user account that will NOT require a password. Anyone can use this account.

It is very important to have a guest account, because this ensures that a thief is able to use your computer right away.

NOTE: Do not enable parental controls on the guest account.

The thief will not have access to your personal files, but they will have access to the internet and other basic programs available through the guest account.

This is very important!

Your laptop needs to be online for Prey Project to start sending juicy information that will help you recover your computer quickly.

Prey Project Testing

Prey Puts YOU in Control

Testing The Software

Finally, make sure everything is working correctly. Log into PreyProject.com, click on the name of your computer, and mark it as “missing”.

Then turn on one of the alarms, like the custom pop-up message.

Remember to save your settings. Now wait and see what happens.

It could take up to an hour for the software to work. Be patient. Go do something else while you’re waiting. When the alarm eventually goes off, log back into Prey Project to view your new reports. They should contain web-cam photos, screenshots, and WiFi location information. You will also get an email anytime a new report is available.

When you know Prey is working on your personal user account, test it again, but this time log into your password-free guest account. This is the account that a thief will have access to. Make sure it also works there.

Troubleshooting

If you can’t get Prey working on your laptop, search the Prey Project forum or check out their customer support. I had some issues getting the software to work on my new guest account because I use a program called Little Snitch that blocks all outgoing internet connections unless I say otherwise.

Eventually I learned how to fix it on the forum.

Prey Project Tracking

Tracking Your Prey

Tracking A Stolen Computer

Your computer has just been stolen. What do you do now? The very first step should be to file a police report. Do that right away. The police will not do anything without a report on file, and you can’t make an insurance claim without a police report either.

Let the police know that you have tracking software on your computer, and you will call them if you start to receive tracking information. I urge you to try and work with the police to recover your laptop.

Once you begin to receive tracking reports, upgrade your free Prey Project membership to Pro for $5. This lets you save many more reports on the website.

You should also change your report frequency to every 2 minutes.

But to ensure you’re not overloaded with information, change it back to 10 or 20 minutes when the thieves are not actively using the computer.

Save any photos, screenshots, map locations, and personal information on a USB drive or another computer, so you can send it to the police or use it in court.

Wait until you have plenty of strong identifying information before you attempt any recovery.

Pro membership only allows you to save up to 100 reports before it starts deleting old ones. Record the best information before it gets deleted. Delete reports that don’t contain any good information to make room for new ones.

Recover Stolen Computer

Actual Screenshot from My Successful Recovery (he’s shopping for a tranny prostitute)

Recovering Your Computer

Now in my particular case, I recovered my computer without the police. While I initially filed a police report and notified them about the tracking software, my situation soon changed.

It took 3 months before I started receiving tracking information (because I didn’t have a guest account), and I was no longer in the country where the theft took place. Panama City’s police department didn’t inspire much confidence while I was there either.

I also didn’t want my computer to be held up as evidence in a court case 2000 miles away. The language barrier would be challenging when I couldn’t speak to authorities in person.

By now I had already assumed my computer was lost, so I decided to risk it and try for recovery on my own.

Using my website and the power of social media, I embarrassed the crap out of the people who were in possession of my stolen computer while simultaneously collecting personal details like their names, employers, family members, friends, email addresses, photos, phone numbers, home addresses, and more.

Had they tried to ditch my laptop, I could have made their lives absolute hell.

I decided to threaten them with police action & further humiliation instead, and it worked like a charm. They met with a friend of mine and gave up the MacBook Pro right away.

Use your best judgement depending on your own particular case. Happy hunting!


Software: Prey Project
Total Cost: Free to install, $5 to upgrade
Useful Notes: Make sure you have a password-free guest account on your computer. This will act as a “honey-pot”, luring the criminals into using your computer immediately.
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Matthew Karsten is the Expert Vagabond. Addicted to adventure travel and photography, he's on a mission to inspire your next journey with entertaining stories, vibrant images, and useful tips. Vagabonding around the world since 2010. Follow his adventures on Facebook, , and Twitter.

Want to travel more? Learn how with my favorite Budget Travel Resources.


Tell Me What You Think!

Comment Rules: Critical comments are fine, but rude ones will be deleted. Have fun, and thanks for adding to the conversation!

  • Alistair

    Wow, I never heard of Prey Project before. This is one thing I’ll definitely have on my laptop.

    • http://ExpertVagabond.com Matthew Karsten

      I highly recommend it! :D

  • Amber

    My friend whose laptop got stolen just recently will be very delighted to know about this.

  • http://disassemblyrequired.wideanglewandering.com Guy

    Reminds me of the guy who recovered his Mac a few years ago through the DynDNS client he’d installed: http://obamapacman.com/2011/01/what-happens-when-you-steal-a-hackers-mac/

    There is a spectrum of methods and controls to consider when deciding on security for your gear and data. It’s important to consider what’s really important to you on that spectrum. If it’s the hardware you want to protect, than an approach like what is described above makes sense.

    If you want a chance at recovering your hardware while also protecting the data, you need to consider encryption. You mentioned that one can’t get access to personal files from the guest account. With physical access to the machine, that is only true if you are also properly using encryption (like FileVault, dmcrypt or Bitlocker). Physical access to the machine makes it trivial to access any unencrypted data on the drive.

    If you’re willing to lower the chance of recovering your hardware while guaranteeing the data will never be compromised then you need to look at full-disk encryption with a boot-time password to access the drive decryption key. This is easy to setup using TrueCrypt on Windows or dmcrypt on Linux. I’m not sure what Mac users would do there.

    In my case, I’m using a $400 HP DM1Z laptop with a small SSD in place of the hard drive. The entire drive is encrypted with TrueCrypt. I backup my content to an external drive, also encrypted. I’m also going to subscribe to a cloud-based backup service so I have geographic redundancy should I lose all my gear. I’m not sure how well the wifi services I find on the road will cope with the backup service. If that doesn’t work out I will ship an encrypted SD card home from time to time.

    • http://ExpertVagabond.com Matthew Karsten

      I also use TrueCrypt on my Mac. Not for the whole drive, but for sensitive personal information.

      In addition to a regular external backup drive, I’ve also started shipping a cheap backup drive to the US every 4 months or so loaded with photos & video. All of these are smart practices. I’ve heard too many horror stories of people losing all their data when a drive fails or equipment gets stolen. :)

  • Fred

    Backing up your video/photos on flash drives is the way to go. Flash drives are portable, easy to carry around, it’s cost-effective and carries alot of information. And you can ship them back to the US without paying a huge shipping fee. They even come in 64GB versions.

  • Amor

    Thanks for this Matt. I am planning to bring with me my laptop when I will travel because I want to blog every end of the day. thanks a lot.

  • http://www.trippinonlife.wordpress.com Sam

    This would be the first software that I shall install as soon as I buy that laptop next week! Thanks a lot, mate!

  • Matthew

    Hi Matt, I have one question, I have an Windows 7 notebook and installed prey, can you make a standard user account and not an guest account, because when I log in to the guest account I don’t have access to wifi settings?

    • http://ExpertVagabond.com Matthew Karsten

      I’m not a Windows guy anymore, so I don’t know, but do you mean a guest can’t connect to WiFi? That’s strange. There should be a way to give guest accounts WiFi access…

      Maybe ask Prey Customer support directly: http://answers.preyproject.com/

  • Matthew

    I’v just found that when creating a guest account you CAN’T have access to networking settings, so I created a standard account, named it guest, blocked access to the folder Prey creates when installing so that the thief can’t delete Prey, and set it as missing, now I’m waiting for results…

  • http://www.travellingking.com Sam D

    Brilliant!
    Ill install it to my laptop right now!

  • Petes

    The problem with the guest account and the regular account that Prey makes is that there still is access to the C: drive, just where Prey gets installed so it’s pretty easy to find. What you can do to make it a bit stealth is to make the folder Hidden. I believe that if Prey isn’t installed on the C drive it probably won’t work in the guest account. This is for Windows with a locked admin account.

    • http://ExpertVagabond.com Matthew Karsten

      Thanks for the tip! This would be assuming that they’d even know to look for it. My guess is most thieves won’t be that technically savvy. But I guess the more people start using this software, the higher the chances your average opportunistic thief will know about Prey.

      • Syd kelly

        I tried the software and the first report showed as a test is sing was that it was in city hall, so what’s with that.

  • Max

    Thanks for the tip, I just tested it and works great!

    • http://ExpertVagabond.com Matthew Karsten

      Good to hear Max! I hope you never have to use it.

      Although it may be entertaining if you do.

  • Gerard

    We are going through the same right now. Four computers three cameras and all that goes with them. They kick down the door in ore apartment while we went out for half an hour. The police in Panama are of no help at all, it seem people here think it is O.K. to rob tourist and you will get no help at all. We have lost over $5000.00 on this trip of hell. All I can say, do not go to Panama because even if you do have this on your PC the police will not help you, the only way is to do what this lad did and it could get bad if you pick on the wrong people. I am now going to try install it on a cheap PC and see if we can get our stuff with this bait. Wish me luck.

  • http://lab.kuzniewski.pl Kuzniewski

    Thanks for the user guide to Prey Project. I’ve been looking for some software to protect my computer from the eventuality of theft but couldn’t find anything practical and affordable. I also enjoyed your laptop retrieval story – I have’nt had such a laugh for quite some time.

  • DaveH

    I’d add that, if you use an email client on your computer, change your email account passwords as soon as your computer goes missing, so that email is not downloaded to the client, especially not Prey emails. It may in fact be worth choosing an email address for Prey that you don’t access via the client.

  • Dawa Gyeltshen

    Will this prey project be helpful if the laptop is stolen and the windows OS itself is being changed?

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