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Thefts of laptops containing sensitive information increased dramatically in the past few years–81% between 2005 and 2006 alone, according to Traverse City, MI-based Ponemon Institute. Thousands more were simply lost or left behind in airports, hotels, restaurants and cabs.

Safeware Insurance, a Columbus, OH firm that markets laptop insurance, estimates more than 600,000 laptops are lost or stolen annually nationwide. More significantly, the FBI estimates 97% of stolen laptops are never recovered. The troubling reality is that company laptops typically hold trade secrets or financial and customer data. In the case of a commercial real estate professional, that could include names, addresses, Social Security numbers, dates of birth, telephone numbers and proprietary information about the company and its clients.

Even worse, the information may not be backed up on a central server and losing it–by theft or carelessness–is likely to create both financial burdens and embarrassing public reporting requirements under federal or state law. It could also undermine the confidence clients have in the company.

There are, however, steps IT departments and individual employees can take to reduce the risk of losing key hardware and data. John Livingston, chairperson and CEO of Absolute Software Corp., a Vancouver, British Columbia company that provides computer theft recovery and tracking solutions, describes it as “multi-layered approach” involving these key steps:

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