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After spending hundreds of dollars on smartphones, tablets, laptops and desktops, we all try to be vigilant when it comes to thieves. In most cases you can walk down a street without any trouble; most days your briefcase or satchel won't be stolen when you put it down beside you in a restaurant or railway station. Most days, your home or office won't be broken into and your computer stolen.
But most days aren't every day; there remains a chance that such bad fortune might befall you. Fortunately there are useful apps that you can use to help you to retrieve stolen hardware.
Whether you're using a Mac, iPhone or iPad, an Android device or a Windows computer, you should be able to find a free or low-cost app that can be used to provide the identity of your device's thief, either by detecting the stolen hardware's location or by activating the front-facing camera.
What These Apps Do
Taking advantage of the integrated camera and location-based/GPS hardware, such apps are designed to allow you to capture an image of anyone using your phone without authorization. That's right – the masked assailant who swiftly stole your smartphone as you walked around the local shopping arcade can be identified thanks to a hidden app!
Relying on remote signals or failed attempts to sign into the device, these apps will activate the webcam and take a photo of your thief. They might also send the current location of the hardware back to you via email, messaging or a central website.
Of Course, They Can't Arrest the Thief
But let's not get carried away.
As powerful as they are, these apps can't do the arresting for you. They also won't work if there is no signal for wireless or mobile Internet.
Indeed, they should be used as a last resort, one that is only relied upon after you have made the necessary precautions for travel with your phone, computer or tablet. Don't Be A Victim: Practical Tips To Protect Your Smartphone From Theft deals with the steps that you should take; you should also consider the benefits of buying insurance for your gadgets.
Incidentally, before relying on any of the free tools below you should confirm that they work on your device.
iSpy for Windows
This extremely useful app (reviewed previously by Matt) has a very clever set of features that make it ideal for capturing the faces of people using your computer.
The webcam can be configured to be activated whenever someone moves, but best of all the captured footage can be automatically uploaded to YouTube for you to check. Captures can be scheduled, too – perhaps for a period while you're away from your computer, or while you're out and about with it.
It doesn't have to be used to snap thieves – iSpy can also be used as a home security solution – but for Windows users it is a great way to get a fix on the guy that stole your computer or burgled your property. Head to iSpyConnect to get your copy.
Prey: Available For Most Platforms
Whether you're using Windows, OS X or Linux/Ubuntu, or if your mobile platform of choice is iOS or Android, there is a version of Prey for you.
Justin took a look a Prey a couple of years ago – as it is now more widely available and has great reviews on all platforms, you might have seen Prey on TV or read about it in a magazine.
Considered the market leader in third party hardware retrieval, if you're not using Prey already, now is the time to check it out. You can download Prey via the publisher's website.
HiddenEye for Android
Slightly different from Prey, HiddenEye activates your camera if someone tries to unlock the device with an incorrect password.
In this situation, the intruder will be photographed by the device's front facing camera, storing the image to your smartphone for checking later. If you use Dropbox, HiddenEye can be configured to save the images into your cloud storage, enabling quick and easy identification of the culprit.
Additionally, HiddenEye can also record audio, which is useful if your device doesn't have a front-facing camera. This app is available free from Google Play.
Beware the Photo of a Thief!
All of these apps will enable you to capture either an image of the thief or his/her surroundings. With luck, your law enforcement agency should be able to identify them and retrieve your hardware. However, don't rely on this. Police are busy with all manner of offences and crimes on a day-to-day basis, and there is every chance that they won't be able to assign resources to help you out, evidence or not.
Whatever the case, remember to inform your insurance company and update them of all developments!
Have you had any experiences (good or bad) with any of these apps? If so, tell us about it in the comments.
Image Credit: Mobile phone theft via Shutterstock
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