I Got My Computer Stolen So That You Don't Have to: the Digital Nomad's Guide to Keeping Your Data and Things Safe

Sep 16, 2023

Aljaž Fajmut

We the digital nomads spend a lot of time on the road. The only way to get our stuff done is to carry a computer and other gadgets with us — for work, fun, or both. Sure, losing all your data and expensive equipment is the last thing that you want in your life — yet still, way too often we end up in places or situations when being flexible or keeping our stuff safe is getting complicated.

A couple of months ago I was traveling in Italy. I went to a nice festival of experimental electronic music close to Milan. As always, I had all my computer equipment so that I could get some work done when the festival was over.

When I returned to the parking lot, an alarm sound caught my attention. Approaching my car, I noticed a broken back window. Then it hit me: They broke into my car!

So, I lost two laptops with all the work that I have done in my life, my music that was not stored anywhere else, everything packed and stolen in my favorite functional backpack that I bought just a few days ago. Ok, laptops, who cares. But the backpack?!

In a way, I felt that I was ready for that.

But after thinking about what went wrong and what I could have done better to avoid this, I came to certain realizations that I want to share with every digital nomad, freelancer, or entrepreneur who is often traveling with computers and other precious belongings.

Now, my computers are prepared for getting stolen. They won’t make much use to anyone who steals it because of the measures that I took — unless Elon Musk or NASA does it.

Getting your stuff stolen or lost means losing data and equipment (which isn’t cheap), all the struggle and trauma that comes with it, dealing with the police, ordering new stuff (which isn’t cheap either), copying the data, over-obsessing with having equipment at the right place, and so on.

If you don’t have time for that, read on.

In this article, we will share a fool-proof checklist of trusted tips and actions you should implement to not only be ready for everything the future holds for your Mac but significantly lower the risk of theft or loss. Expert tips from the Nightwatch team and fellow digital nomads are, of course, included.

Let’s dive in!

Encrypt your disks

Encrypting your disks is probably one of the most important security measures. It means that when someone steals your computer, they cannot access the information and data on your computer without knowing your access password as the data is encrypted.

You can easily encrypt your data on Mac by using FileVault. On Windows 10, you can do it with Device Encryption.

Use strong passwords

I’m sure you’ve heard this one before, but seriously though, use passwords that cannot be easily guessed or brute forced. Of course, you don’t want to have the master password too long as you have to enter it every time you open the computer, but you should still ensure that it’s not too generic. Make sure to change them every once in a while too.

Use a password storing app

Use an app for saving and storing passwords encrypted on your computer. I use password storing app 1Password, but there are other great apps out there such as Dashlane and LastPass.

1Password is a storing app that keeps your passwords safe and encrypted

Use Find My Device

Even though iCloud sucks big time, you could use it for locating your iDevices.

Apple has its own system of finding and detecting the location of your devices. It will probably not be as effective on your Mac as it is on iPhone since it requires a user to login to the user profile and connect to the internet, but you should try anyway.

One trick to get your computer better prepared to work with Find My Mac is to activate or create a guest (non-admin) account that also uses iCloud to report the location and can be used by the robber to log in to your computer without knowing the password.

You can use Find My iPhone for locating your iDevices

If you’re using Windows, rest assured it also has Find My Device option. Same goes for Android devices.

Get a GPS tracking device

Alternatively — or additionally — get a device that can track the location of your backpack or a computer: it accepts a SIM card and reports the location to the server. You can install it in a car, a computer, or just carry it separately in your backpack.

Now that you’re technologically ready, let’s get to the things that make you wiser and less prone to mishaps. Your personal tendencies are usually the greatest weaknesses of oneself.

Create regular backups

Use cloud sync for the most important files so you can easily access them everywhere. You should also have all data stored on backups regularly — which is especially important if you’re working with larger files and cannot sync everything in the cloud.

Time Machine is an inbuilt backup program on Mac

The unsettling reality is that a majority of people don’t back up their data as often as they should.

As a freelancer, you should know better — because for you, more than anyone else, data is currency. Data loss equals earnings loss, period.  

Before you crack your head about uncommon data-saving tricks, develop a habit of saving your data daily. That’s the unshakeable foundation on which all other tips rest. Unless you make data backup a part of your daily routine, no hack in the world will save you.

— Qhubekani Nyathi, the founder and CEO at Wholesome Commerce

Apps like Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, Box, etc. will sync your files on the fly so you can access them on multiple devices in the latest version. You can have special folders dedicated to certain kinds of files that would get synced across multiple devices — but make sure the information is not too sensitive.

I back up everything now and deliberately set aside time each week to do backups of both my laptop and my PC. I then store this material on a portable drive in a totally separate location away from the office.

In the event of a fire or robbery, I could pick up from where I left off with the files stored on the backup drive. It's not an absolutely fool-proof system but it's a good beginning.

— Keith Keller, Twitter Marketing Specialist

Research the places where you’re going

Do a proper research on the places where you’re traveling. All those reviews and travel websites are there for you.

See criminal statistics for different locations in the world, find out what neighborhoods in Barcelona or New York you better not visit alone or at night, and dig into those travel safety tips. Better safe than sorry.

Understand the message you’re sending to the world

Pay more attention to what message you are sending to the world with the things that you’re carrying and the ways you behave in certain situations.

For example: Carrying around white headphones on harrowing streets communicate that you have an iPhone with you. Same goes for a laptop case that can easily be swapped for a plain tote bag that doesn’t catch attention. Obviously, driving an expensive car or wearing expensive-looking clothes can make you an easy prey, too.

Relax, you don’t have to impress anyone.

Have your data automatically backed up and travel insurance or money in savings in case something does happen, just be prepared!

I always bring a small nice looking leather day bag with me whenever I travel and work outside my home office. It looks great for day or night and then if I need to go to the bathroom I can easily tuck it into my bag and take it with me to the bathroom. If I am in a cafe I always try to choose a seat near the ordering booth so I can physically watch my things while I order too.

— Esther Marie, founder of Virtual Assistant Internship Program

Store your stuff in a safe place

Always store your equipment in the safest places you can think of, like specially designed lockers, hotel receptions — or leave it with the people you trust.

Never leave your bag or computer unattended. If you’re working in a cafe or coworking and have to go to the bathroom or for a smoke, take it with you. And no, you’re not being paranoid; you’re being practical.

To keep my computer secure when working remotely, I take the following steps:

  • Set up my laptop password to automatically require changing every month

  • Not just keep my computer within sight, but within arm's reach at all times

  • Avoid asking strangers to watch my laptop for me in public places like coffee shops or libraries

Just in case something does happen, I make sure:

  • Important documents are created in cloud-based apps like Google Docs or backed up in cloud storage like Google Drive or Dropbox.

  • To back up my hard drive at least once a month.

— Maxwell Gollin, Content Marketing Strategist at Falcon.io

Always put your equipment in a non-visible place. Put your computer under a sofa, hide it in a closet, put it in your car’s trunk — or at least cover it with a blanket. An adapter of a computer can also indicate that there is a computer nearby, so don’t leave it at a visible place; same goes for headphones and a phone.

Don’t have all the equipment in one place. For example, if you have two computers, it’s better to have them stored in two separate places. If one gets stolen, at least you’d have another one.

Have a plan B

As with most freelancers, Lesley Vos, a freelance writer and contributor at Bid4Papers.com is with her laptop in every corner, even when she's away on holiday.

So, it would happen sooner or later: during her transit flight to Sri Lanka, she nodded in the airport and woke up just to discover her laptop was stolen. Maybe it was a hint from the universe that holidays are meant for relaxing rather than freelance writing projects, but she had three of them researched, drafted, and ready to complete in those few days.

Here is what she did:

  • Informed the airport security

  • Locked the access remotely, leaving the message for its new owners: "He was an old but a good friend. I hope you'll burn in hell."

  • Called to her friends in Sri Lanka and asked them for a laptop rent.

  • Emailed to clients and asked for a 3-day rescheduling of the deadlines.

  • Completed everything on time, with a rented laptop but changed all passwords beforehand.

In a week, on the way back home, in the same airport,  the laptop came back! (Actually, Leslie got the mail from terminal information service telling "We've found a bucket vaguely looking like a laptop in WC. It's probably yours" two days before my flight back.)

The lesson learned? Don't panic and always have a backup plan ready in advance.

Coworking in New Mexico

Take advice from colleagues

Shit happens, and it’s a good idea to invest some time in getting ready for the robbery and understand how your behavior can be affecting certain situations and attracting robbers, directly or indirectly.

Let’s see how the rest of the Nightwatch team keeps their devices and information safe:

Kas, Social Media and Outreach Coordinator

While traveling South America, I was warned of the frequent robberies of phones and laptops, so I had to implement extra cautious measures of safety. It might sound simplistic, but the first step I took was to exchange my laptop bag for a simple colorful bag to make it less obvious that I am carrying my computer with me.  Furthermore, I enabled the Find my iPhone feature on my iPhone in case it got lost or stolen.

Of course, while staying at the hostel, I took advantage of the lockers and was trying to minimize the use of public Wi-Fi by using my own 3G Data instead. I also carried another old and cheap phone with me in case of a road robbery — which happens traveling by buses in countries like Colombia. Like this, I could give away the phone of little value that is only used in emergency situations or when going out.

As a digital nomad, I knew it would be extremely important to prepare for losing my electronics on the go.

I have a pretty heavy box full of extra headphones, chargers, adapters, etc. But when I got my phone stolen in Peru, it was my spare, smashed up old iPhone 6 that came in handy. So my advice is to not get rid of an old phone, no matter how useless it seems at the time!

— Sophie McAulay, Growth and Content Strategist at AND CO

Rebecca, Outreach Coordinator

I am currently using Lastpass to store passwords.

I have an 11” MacBook Air that is easy to carry and hide in bags and hen I’m traveling. If I’m doing a long haul and have to bring a lot of equipment with me, I have a backpack with locks on it and cover it with a rain cover for backpacks. If I’m going to a country that is high in theft, I’ll store my laptop in a plain tote bag so I don’t stand out.

I change my laptop password every month as well as activate two-step authentication. I back up data on my laptop onto my external every other week.

Kat, Customer Success Heroine, Content Strategist

I often travel to places where I have friends, and they proved to be the best source of advice when it comes to safe storage whereabouts — even if it's their house.

Before going to unfamiliar places, I often look up the address of a library or a community center that has free computers available in case mine gets stolen/lost/broken/out of charge — or if I can’t find any decent Wi-Fi in my neighborhood or my sim/router doesn’t work. This is really for emergency situations like getting in touch with your team or clients to move deadlines.

I invested in a very light computer that I can actually carry around with ease and elegance: this way, I don't have the temptation to drop it somewhere already.

Matic, Co-Founder and CTO

I never leave my devices in a parked car. if I really have to (very seldom), then I shove the computer in a secret compartment in the boot. My car auto locks while driving so nobody can steal them while I'm waiting at traffic lights or something.

When I’m traveling and have to leave devices in a hotel room or Airbnb, I hide them under the bed mattress or behind furniture. When not at home, I carry my computer with me religiously in public places, even to the toilet.

I’m also using finder apps. Everything important is synced to the cloud.

I don't log into unprotected Wi-Fi, and I favor my phone data connection (when possible) over any other public Wi-Fi, even if it’s “secure.”

Simon, Software Developer

I store passwords in 1Password and enable two-factor auth where I can.

I use Mac OS full disk encryption, so in case of theft, the data is secure. I backup all my important data to my personal cloud using Resilio Sync.

Ema, Coder from Hell

For things like passwords I use often I use the safest place: my head. It’s really simple to remember complicated passwords with some mnemotechnic rules. Otherwise, an encrypted file, no fancy password managers. For SSH connections I use encrypted keys (several) everywhere.

All my disks might or might not be encrypted, using or not deniable encryption.

I always keep a firewall up and try to keep working spaces separated using containers. For example, the environment where I run a browser logged into some Google service is isolated from the rest. I only backup the essential from which I can recover a complete system which is under 50MB, so no big backups required. I do keep dozens of disks around with many different kinds of data, all in the safety of my home.

Final thoughts

If you're a freelancer, a digital nomad, or simply a person who doesn't unplug from work on a vacation — it's critical your devices stay with you.

Use this guide as inspiration, a cheet sheet, or an awareness booster when you go on a journey next time.

Make sure you:

  • Encrypt your disks

  • Use strong passwords and a password storing app

  • Have Find My Device set up

  • Get a GPS tracking device

  • Create regular backups

  • Research the places where you’re going

  • Store your stuff in a safe place.

Share this with your fellow digital nomads and let us know if you have any tips of your own in the comments!

Share this with your fellow digital nomads and let us know if you have any tips of your own in the comments!