Buyers Beware: How to Spot a Stolen Laptop

By: Absolute Team | 2/5/2010

Laptop theft equals big business for many thieves. Online classifieds and auction sites like Craigslist, pawnshops and sometimes even street corners provide the perfect spot to flip a stolen machine. While few of us will deny that computer theft is a seedy crime, many of us wouldn’t hesitate if offered a great deal on a good computer. But at what price?

Whether you unknowingly make an illegitimate transaction or simply chose to ignore your better judgement to strike a good deal, the consequences of buying a stolen laptop are unfavorable. If you end up in a shady situation but still make the purchase, you could potentially face charges for Possession of Stolen Property. If that laptop contained sensitive data (personally identifiable information from customer data, privileged or proprietary corporate data) that can be linked back to a business, what responsibility do you have to alert police or return that data or device? Even if by chance you can prove you made the second-hand purchase in good faith, you’ll still be without a laptop in the end. The police will return the machine to its legitimate owner, and you’ll be out whatever cash you forked over.

Absolute recovers thousands of stolen computers each year, and so we know the general rule of thumb when it comes to purchasing a used machine. If the situation feels suspicious, it probably is, and you should avoid it.

Absolute stops cyber criminals in their tracks


Although there are no real tell-tale signs of theft, there are definitely red flags to look for when buying secondhand.

  • The seller is unable to produce any documentation for the hardware
  • The Kensington lock slot is damaged, which suggests the computer was ripped from its security cable
  • The laptop is being sold without its power cord
  • The laptop is being sold for an unusually low price (most thieves are looking for a quick flip)
  • Serial number is scratched out or blatantly obscured
  • The laptop is password protected
  • There are clear signs of corporate branding (e.g. desktop, screen savers, naming schemes, stickers, etching, etc.)
  • The seller is not willing to turn on the laptop or connect it to the Internet (which would give security protections like Absolute the chance to connect and activate)


Even though the offer may be tempting, think before you buy and do your research first.

  • Inquire into the reason for sale. Why is the seller getting rid of the laptop? What have they used it for in the past? Look for fumbling responses, or incoherent explanations.
  • Ask where the laptop was originally purchased and for any original documentation the seller may have – manuals, receipts etc.
  • Request a purchase receipt. An honest seller should have no qualms with this.
  • Consider fair market price. Is the computer being sold for an unreasonably low amount?
  • Using the laptop’s serial number, check with online theft registries or local police to see if the machine has been reported stolen.
  • Request a test drive of the laptop. Connect it to the Internet. If stolen and protected by Absolute, this could trigger an automated delete / lock, at which point a message will appear on the screen about next steps to return the stolen laptop.

Absolute provides persistent visibility and control for endpoint devices - desktop, laptops, tablets and smartphones. Embedded at the factory in more than 1 billion devices, our protection cannot be deleted or disabled. If you are purchasing a device for corporate use, be sure to purchase only new devices that are protected by the self-healing endpoint security from Absolute. The last thing you want is for your new device - and all your sensitive data - to end up in the hands of thieves!

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