It can happen in a moment. You're in a café, minding your own business. You take your eye off your laptop for a second and suddenly it's gone.

Of course you're upset about the lost hardware; it's probably your most valuable portable possession. But most people's first cry will be: "My life was on that laptop!" The software, photos, emails, documents, projects and assorted precious things stored on a laptop can be very difficult and time-consuming to get back - often impossible.

There are plenty of software security options for laptop users. We'll show you how to prevent people eavesdropping when you're using a public wireless network, how to lock your laptop up against intruders, how to retrieve or wipe your data remotely, and even how to track it down from a distance.

  1. A strong password is at least eight characters long and contains a combination of upper- and lower-case letters, numbers and symbols. It doesn't contain a complete word or your name. In Control Panel, choose User Accounts, Change Your Password (in Vista, press Ctrl, Alt, Del).
  2. Protect yourself from 'walk-by' information theft - you don't want nosy colleagues having a crafty peek when you leave your laptop in the boardroom during a meeting break. In Vista, choose the Start button and then the lock symbol. In XP, choose Start, Log Off to return to the password prompt.
  3. Password-protect your screensaver. In Vista's Control Panel choose Personalization, Screen Saver, then tick 'On resume, display logon screen'. In XP's Control Panel, choose Display Properties, Screen Saver and tick the 'On resume, password protect' box. You may need to adjust the time delay.
  4. If your workplace has a virtual private network, you can use this to send encrypted data securely over the internet. In XP's Control Panel, select Network and Internet Connections (or Network and Sharing Center in Vista), 'Create a new connection', 'Connect to a workplace', then follow the prompts.
  5. Make sure you've got a software firewall in place and ramp up the security level at a public Wi-Fi spot. Choose Start, Control Panel, Windows Firewall. Click Change Settings and tick 'Block all incoming connections'. Installing a second firewall, such as Comodo's Firewall Pro, is a good idea.
  6. When you join an unfamiliar Wi-Fi network, triple-check that it's harmless. Unscrupulous hackers can create fake Wi-Fi connections in hotels or airports in the hope that people will be fooled into joining them. Sometimes called 'evil twins', these ad-hoc networks can capture information sent over the web.
  7. Turn off filesharing when not in use. XP SP2 does so by default; you can double-check by choosing Control Panel, Windows Firewall, Exceptions and making sure File and Printer Sharing isn't ticked. In Vista, choose Change Settings in Windows Firewall, select Exceptions and do the same thing.
  8. Turn your wireless card off when not in use. There may be a physical switch, or you can turn it off in XP by right-clicking the wireless icon in the Taskbar and choosing Disable. Select 'Manage wireless networks' in Vista's Network and Sharing Center, right-click the wireless network icon and choose Disable.
  9. Be wary of allowing your browser to remember your details for future use. What's convenient for you could be very convenient for a laptop thief. To delete cookies in Internet Explorer, choose Tools, Internet Options, General. Then, under Cookies, click Delete. Choose Yes to confirm, Close, then ok.
  10. Keep your documents private in a virtual safe on your hard drive. Safe One lets you create two 1GB safes for your files. These can be protected with a normal password (Safe One will help you generate a strong one), a picture password or device key such as a USB key, mobile phone or camera.
  11. You can easily encrypt specific files and folders in XP and Vista. Choose Start, All Programs, Accessories, Windows Explorer. Right-click the file you want to encrypt, then choose Properties. Under the General tab, choose Advanced, then select 'Encrypt contents to secure data'. To decrypt, untick the box.
  12. A laptop thief with a bit of technical know-how can easily access files you've deleted. DeleteOnClick is a free utility that allows you to securely delete files by right-clicking from the Windows menu. It will also wipe free disk space.
  13. Zapeze.com is a subscription service that allows you to remotely wipe files if your laptop thief goes online. The beauty is that, even if you didn't safeguard your files before your laptop was stolen, you can take care of things later like a James Bond villain - cackling while you hit Destroy.
  14. You've got a much better chance of recovering a stolen laptop that's registered with a PC tracking service - if the thieves go online it'll send a signal to the service. You could try Steganos AntiTheft (part of its Secure Traveler suite) or Absolute Laptop Theft Recovery.