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Posted at 1:05 PM ET, 12/15/2010

Backup for a minute: What should Marc Fisher's son have done?

By Rob Pegoraro

The most talked-about tech story on the Post today wasn't here or on Cecilia Kang's Post Tech. Instead, it's been Marc Fisher's post--alternately amusing and unsettling--about how a thief broke into his house and stole, among other things, his teenage son's computer.

And that's when things got worse. As my colleague writes, "the apparent thief didn't stop with taking our belongings":

He felt compelled to showboat about his big achievement: He opened my son's computer, took a photo of himself sneering as he pointed to the cash lifted from my son's desk, and then went on my son's Facebook account and posted the picture for 400 teenagers to see.

Marc goes on to note that equally stupid criminals have pulled this kind of stunt around the country, and in response many police departments--unfortunately, the District's doesn't seem to be among them--now look for them on social-media sites.

(There's an interesting parallel here to the way Craiglist and others defended that site's since-revoked decision to post "adult services" ads: It's easier for law enforcement to find criminals if they surface in more public sites.)

I can only hope that this jerk's decision to brag about his theft on Facebook helps the cops throw him in jail, and that other crooks follow his example.

But on an individual level, wouldn't you rather keep somebody from hijacking your Facebook profile, or at least kick them out if they do make off with your account? The Palo Alto, Calif., social network added a remote-logout feature two months back for just that purpose. It's not hard to use, but you do need to remember to use it.

While you're at it, you should also make sure you've added contact information--including your mobile number, if you wish--to your Facebook security settings beyond any e-mail accounts that a thief could easily access from a stolen computer. Then check your Facebook notification settings to make sure that you won't get bothered by notices from the site at these other accounts.

(Note that Marc's piece credits Facebook with a rapid response to his query. That may or may not be a consequence--you knew this was coming--of Post Co. chairman Donald E. Graham sitting on Facebook's board of directors.)

The post wraps up with another unfortunate consequence of the break-in:

On my son's computer, but never backed up, was one of the greatest documents ever, something he would have cherished all his life. He had meticulously kept a running list of every movie he had ever seen, hundreds and hundreds, with his comments on each.

That's the part that, to me, really hurt--because this was so easy to avoid. I've been nagging people for years to back up their data, but people keep forgetting to do this.

So, once again, I implore you: If you've got data on your computer that matters to you, don't let it stay there. Back it up to something, anything.

Both Windows 7 and the 10.5 and 10.6 releases of Mac OS X include good, free backup tools (note that while that Apple link and other documentation specify "hard drives" as Time Machine backup volumes, you can use a USB flash drive too). You can also choose from numerous options, many free, for those and older operating systems.

But you don't need any special program to safeguard your most important files. Just drag and drop them to an external disk, burn them to a CD or DVD, or upload them to a site like Dropbox or Google Docs.

Don't get me wrong here: I don't mean to pick on Marc's kid. But I do hope that by expanding on his story, other people who have neglected these chores can learn from his experience.

You can help me there: What else could my co-worker or his son have done, either before or after the break-in, to limit the damage? If you've been in a similar situation, what worked for you?

By Rob Pegoraro  | December 15, 2010; 1:05 PM ET
Categories:  Privacy, Security, Social media  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Gawker breach fallout: LinkedIn, Amazon reset some users' passwords
Next: What do you do with your photos and videos?


For important things, I'm wondering if backing up to the cloud (such as Dropbox, photos somewhere like Picasa, documents in Google Docs or gmail, etc.) might be the best idea. It's not always easy or convenient to keep separate off-site physical backups, and it would have been just as easy for that thief to steal the Fisher's backup drive. Or a house fire to take everything out.

But it'd be pretty difficult for a thief or even hacker to wipe out everything from online storage.

Posted by: misere | December 15, 2010 2:40 PM | Report abuse

One thing I do on all my mobile devices is to have a label with my email address and phone number. Obviously this won't help with theft, but these things are so losable that I want to make it easy for people to do the right thing.

On each memory card for a camera, I have an image that contains my name, email and phone number. If I lost my camera, it would be more important for me to get the memory card back then the camera.

Posted by: rakeshlobster | December 15, 2010 2:46 PM | Report abuse

Has anyone come across a backup utility that will perform automatic incremental backups and doesn't necessitate doing a full backup or trying to figure out which files need to be backed-up?

Posted by: gebjeff1 | December 15, 2010 2:58 PM | Report abuse

@rakeshlobster: That's a really good tip about camera memory cards. I may have to steal it for the PostPoints e-mail I do.

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | December 15, 2010 3:07 PM | Report abuse

Record the serial numbers of your mobile devices, especially laptops, and keep them in a separate place. Some municipalities require pawn shops to report serial numbers to the police, and also mandate that pawn shops require those people attempting to sell devices to provide their name, address, and to submit to an on-site photograph.

Because of this requirement, I was able to recover two stolen laptops (in Lane County, Oregon), and successfully prosecute the thief - or, at least, convict whoever the thief convinced to pawn the devices.

After that, I subsequently have reprogrammed the laptops to require a BIOS password in order to even access Windows, in order to protect access to information on the computers.

Posted by: cch345 | December 15, 2010 4:21 PM | Report abuse

Free Microsoft backup tool for Windows 7, Vista, and XP called SyncToy. You can schedule it to run automatically. It synchronizes the files between those on your computer and external storage. No incremental backups, etc. You just have duplicates stored on an external drive.

Laptops are easy to steal if you're house is broken into. Might want to consider using a cable lock. Most thieves won't spend the time trying to undo it.

Posted by: rrosen3 | December 15, 2010 4:45 PM | Report abuse

Most people don't lock their computers when they leave the house... that would be one way to keep the average thief from accessing the content on the drive. It won't keep out someone with real skills, but most thieves aren't that bright. As for back-up tools... if you use linux think rsync and a cronjob to an external device. I went so far as to dedicate a old P4 as a dedicated back-up server. And that's way more horsepower than what is needed. I agree that backing up to Google is a good idea too... but if you leave access open to your laptop and allow your browser to store your passwords...

Posted by: JorgeGortex | December 15, 2010 6:17 PM | Report abuse

Carbonite is a simple easy backup that isn't too expensive. You set the files/folders to back up, and it is all automatic.
I know a lot of people don't do this on their home computers, but a password might be nice.

Posted by: DrBones721 | December 15, 2010 7:59 PM | Report abuse

Why were all the comments removed from the original article? Was Fisher concerned that his 15 year old son and his friends were reading them?

Anyways, wasn't Marc Fisher fired from the Post about a year ago? There were parties in town to celebrate that event.

Posted by: jk2691 | December 15, 2010 8:41 PM | Report abuse

My home computer was stolen about 5 years ago in a break-in. I had all my personal files backed up to CDs, so nothing was lost. (Though a real backup, like Apple's Time Machine, which keeps track of your whole setup, is better; it's what I'm doing now. Yes, I should backup to the cloud instead, in case of fire. I haven't started that.)

Anyway, because of that I'm very aware that anything I have might be stolen at any time, especially now that I've got a laptop. Always, always, always password-protect your computer. Require login when the computer starts up, and for a laptop, require login when the screen saver has started. This is easy to do on both a Mac and an PC.

Now, if I'm away from my computer for more that 5 minutes, no one can get into it and log into my Facebook account or whatever.

Posted by: tonybreed | December 16, 2010 9:07 AM | Report abuse

@gebjeff1 - The utility I use to automatically back up my computers (3) at home is SyncBackSE ( The free version allows you to create backup schedules that run automatically (overnight) and, once the first run is done, only incremental backups are run. You can set it up so that only certain directories are backed up, or only certain files or only those that have changed, etc. You can also run your profiles manually. Once a month (or so) I also backup our backup sets to an external drive that I keep in a fire/water resistant safe.

I have it running on both WinXP and Win7 machines and it's never left me w/o a backup set.

Posted by: SamFelis | December 16, 2010 10:57 AM | Report abuse

Being an ex-IT person, I've preached backup to my wife and son and have a file server at home so that they can do it easily.

I've found that lots of things are desirable to keep, but some things are really important. I burn a couple of dual layer DVD's every 6 months with that stuff - things like TurboTax files, my wife's research work (she's a professor) and treasured photos - and put them in our safety deposit box. It does not take much time to do or space to keep, but it preserves those things I think we just cannot afford to lose.

Thanks for all your good columns and have a happy holidays.

Posted by: dave143 | December 16, 2010 11:13 AM | Report abuse

@rrosen3: Your cable-lock reminder is another good tip. Especially if the laptop will be going to college.

@DrBones721: I preferred Mozy to Carbonite the last time I tried cloud backup systems--note that Mozy gives 2 GB free--but I should give it another shot. Does it allow you to designate application settings and files (for instance, e-mail archives) by the programs you use instead of selecting specific folders or directories?

@jk2691: I have no idea what happened to the comments on Marc's post--I didn't read them. But my brother did, and said he was appalled by the insults being thrown around there. As for the rumor you're trying to circulate about my colleague, I have no idea what you're talking about. Perhaps you can provide a link to this story, lest other readers think you're living in some alternate reality?

@SamFelis: I've had a fire-resistant safe on my things-to-buy list for a while. Thanks for the reminder.

- R

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | December 16, 2010 12:51 PM | Report abuse

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