Grant Thornton Tracks Thieves, Secures Laptops

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A sales manager is on the road... as usual. She's gotten pretty comfortable living in hotels, so when she goes out to dinner, she leaves her laptop on the desk in her room. But when she gets back later that night, it's gone.

In another city, a CEO arrives at the airport, headed for a big meeting with a potential partner. He sets his laptop bag and his overnight bag down beside his chair, and walks over to the coffee stand not more than 15 feet away. When he gets back to his seat four minutes later, he discovers that while he was getting a cappuccino, someone else was making off with his laptop... and all the financial and marketing information that's on it.

Think these are lost causes?

Think again, says Dave Johnson, director of infrastructure technology at Grant Thornton, LLP, one of the nation's top five accounting firms. If either of these two fictional people worked for Grant Thornton, Johnson says he would have an excellent shot at getting those stolen laptops back.

Johnson basically has his company's 4,400 laptops and 400 desktops hooked up with a sort of LoJack system. If any of them is stolen, he'll be able to trace it as soon as someone uses it to log onto the Internet.

''You've got to realize that 85 percent of my professional staff travel frequently. We are the most mobile workforce that I've ever worked for,'' says Johnson, who has to deal with 585 offices in 110 countries around the world for a company that brought in $728 million in revenue for fiscal 2005. ''You just can't eliminate theft but you can minimize the impact. And that's really what we've done with Absolute.''

Grant Thornton has had Absolute Software, Inc.'s Computrace program on every one of its laptops for the last four or five years. Computrace is designed as a theft recovery solution and it comes installed on every laptop that Grant Thornton leases from Dell.

The software, which runs silently in the background, reports in to Absolute, registering that it's running, who logged in on it and the IP address that it's using. It checks in on a pre-set schedule. Johnson says that means that at any given time, he can go to Absolute's Web site and check the status of any of his company's laptops -- the last time it reported it, who was using it and where it was.

However, if Johnson calls Absolute and tells them a notebook has been stolen, Absolute will change the computer's reporting schedule, forcing it to report in every 15 minutes. Since the software runs silently, the thief doesn't realize that every time he goes online with the stolen machine, it's helping Absolute track his location.

''Companies are getting out of leasing because they have to write the checks at the end of the lease for what they can't find,'' says Johnson. ''To fix the problem, they get out of leasing. It's avoiding the problem. All they're saying is, 'Five years from now who's going to care about this old notebook?' But it doesn't 'go away' five years from now. It's stolen maybe nine months after you've bought it. That's hiding the problem as opposed to dealing with it.''

Johnson says they have used Computrace on several occasions to not only locate stolen computers but to apprehend the thieves, as well.

To Catch a Thief

He says Computrace came in particularly handy once when the IT department had hired a contractor from a temp agency to fill in for a worker who was on leave during a time when old laptops were being swapped out for new ones. This refresh was happening in the office where the temp was working.

''About two weeks into it, the worker notified the agency that he had a family medical emergency that would prevent him from working for Grant Thornton and the agency any more,'' says Johnson. ''We thought this was odd and took inventory and found seven notebooks missing. They were bran' spanking new. Right out of the show room. They had been part of a big shipment. Each one was worth a minimum of $1,500.''

Johnson says he contacted Absolute and gave them the serial numbers of the seven missing laptops. Absolute workers started to watch for those machines to start checking in... and they did.

The first stolen computer started reporting in from a home in Virginia. Absolute's people worked with the Virginia police who went to the home, confiscated the computer and convinced the 'owner' to finger the person who sold it to them. Then the second computer reports in. The police recover it and the same person -- the temp worker -- is finger for selling it.

The police arrive at the man's house, where they find two of the other stolen notebooks. All of the others eventually were recovered as well.

Johnson says the temp worker turned thief received a 10-year sentence with a minimum of two behind bars. ''A bad guy went to jail and Grant Thornton got its product back,'' says Johnson. ''The notebooks were fine. We wiped them, reinstalled them and put them back in the field.

''When you think about the benefits... We were able to track our products and get them back,'' he adds. ''But more importantly, we sent a message to anyone who hears about this. You don't want to steal Grant Thornton property. You will go to jail. They will prosecute. It's just not a smart thing to do.''

Asset Management

Johnson says using Computrace directly ties into the company's asset management program.

''We feel very strongly about managing and maintaining the whereabouts of our assets,'' he adds. ''These machines are 100 percent leased, so at the end of the lease, I have to produce all of this equipment and present it to Dell in a timely matter. When you can't return leased assets, it costs hundreds and hundreds of dollars to buyout equipment you can't find.''

Gartner, an industry analyst firm, theorizes that an 8 percent to 10 percent loss rate on leased equipment is considered good asset management. Johnson reports that Grant Thornton's loss rate is 1 percent.

Ken van Wyk, principal consultant for KRvW Associates, LLC and a columnist for eSecurityPlanet, says theft recovery software has been around for some time now. But the fact that Computrace runs silently is a benefit.

''It's not necessarily a bad thing if it's very stealthy in what it dos and a thief doesn't know it's running,'' says van Wyk, who had two laptops stolen out of his car once. ''But if I were a thief and I had stolen a laptop from someone, I'd load a different operating system onto it. I wouldn't try to run any software that the person had on that machine.''

Regardless of how smart most criminals are, van Wyk says he's impressed with Grant Thornton's 1 percent loss rate.

And without the tracking software, Johnson says it would be difficult at best to maintain that kind of rate.

''Without an auditing tool, what do you believe?'' he asks. ''When Mary Smith says, 'I never had that notebook. I traded it in for a new one and I don't know what your people did with it.' Now I have a record of every time that machine has reported in and who reported in on it. Now I know who to believe.''

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