How Safe Is Your DJ Equipment From Theft?

Laptop computers, tablets, cell phones and other personal electronics have always been a huge target for thieves all over the modern world.  Why?  Because they are small, they are valuable, they are in demand, they are easily hidden, and they can be removed quickly.  The penalty for a property crime is also not terribly severe.

Just ask me how I know… those of you who have signed up for the Passionate DJ VIP List (sidebar on the right) have already heard the story of my laptop and DJ bag getting stolen.  That’s right, about 3 years ago, I was ripped off from over $3000 worth of gear.

The cost of a stolen laptop or other piece of DJ gear is not simply the replacement cost.  You also have to consider peripherals/accessories, data, installed software, stolen music… and for working DJs, lost income.  Not to mention the emotional cost.

My background is in large enterprise Systems Administration, so I am a bit ashamed that I wasn’t more prepared.  I knew better.  Let’s go over some ways that you can help prevent being put in the situation I was!

General Preperation

  • It is always in your best interest to go through and write down the serial numbers of all your pieces of DJ gear.  Take pictures of it all, too.  Keep it in a safe place.  You will want to be as prepared as possible to provide information to the police or your insurance company should the need arise.  Be sure you have irrefutable proof of what you own.
  • Speaking of insurance, it’s a tricky beast.  When my equipment was stolen, I called my insurance company to see how making a claim would affect me financially.  Turns out– surprise!  It was totally not worth it in the long run, and I was better off just eating the cost and replacing my gear.  If you’re traveling with gear a lot, live in a high theft area, or are paranoid… make sure your insurance policy makes sense and you’ll be covered should you need it.
  • When at a gig, leaving your bag full of gear in plain sight in the DJ booth is a huge no-no.  Ask me how I know.  Your best option is to ask someone to lock it in a room (like the manager’s office), or to carry it on your person (for example, a laptop in a book bag).
  • You may want to give some serious thought to engraving your equipment.  I’m on the fence about this one.  Thieves hate when their loot has your name and phone number etched into it.  Unfortunately, so do legitimate buyers… this could affect your resale value.  This is a choice you will have to make on your own.

Laptop-Specific Preperation

  • Definitely invest in some sort of recovery software.  The best ones do require you to pay something, but not all of them are subscription-based.  These pieces of software normally allow you to receive screenshots, webcam shots, Wi-Fi positioning data and more if reported stolen.  Check out Orbicule Undercover (Mac only), Lojack for Laptops, and GadgetTrak for some examples.  They aren’t fool-proof, but I know they would’ve saved my butt in my particular situation.
  • Set a firmware password.  This helps prevent things like doing a clean install of your hard drive.  If you’re using a Mac, you can find the firmware password utility on your Mac OS X DVD (Snow Leopard) or on the recovery partition (Lion).  PCs usually can tap a certain button at startup (like DEL or F2) to load the BIOS setup to set a password.  I recommend setting a password that prevents settings changes, not necessarily booting.
  • Create a dummy account, especially if using theft recovery software.  This gives the thief the ability to “play around” with the machine, giving the software enough time to phone home.  This account should have a blank password and no administrator privileges.
  • Keep super sensitive data (tax information, financial data, etc.) off your laptop, or at least, in an encrypted container.  TrueCrypt is a great, free resource for this.
  • Backups, backups, backups.  The one thing I did right in my scenario is that I had an up-to-date backup, so I didn’t lose any of my installed software, purchased DJ music, or important files.  Time Machine is a godsend for Apple users.

Best Practices (Fix Yourself First)

Most of the time, a theft is a crime of opportunity.  The user of the gear is the weakest link.  This is especially true of traveling DJs.  Airports are among the biggest sources of laptop theft, by the way.

It’s important that you follow a few steps to reduce your risk of getting the gear stolen in the first place.

  • Never leave your gear (including your laptop) unguarded in a hotel room.  Use a cable lock, hotel safe, or a USB security alarm.
  • When loading gear into your car, the trunk is absolutely the safest place.  Don’t leave your gear in plain sight (though your car should be).
  • When traveling through airports and waiting at gates, keep your bag between your feet.
  • Choose a bag that doesn’t scream “DJ stuff!” or “laptop bag!”.  Be discreet.
  • If your gear does end up stolen, make a police report immediately.  Contact local pawn shops, check eBay, and scroll through Craigslist as soon as you realize it’s missing.

No Guarantees

It’s an unfortunate fact of life – sometimes people get ripped off.  You can be the most prepared person in the world, but none of the above steps are going to give you 100% certainty.  Obviously, the idea here is to reduce your risk… but that doesn’t mean you can get lazy.

It’s important to always be vigilant.  There’s a certain irony in the fact that we take some of the most “stealable” equipment in the world and carry it straight into places where they have the biggest chances of being stolen.  However, the best thing you can do is make yourself a pain to steal from.  Most thieves want an easy target… if that’s not you, they will move on.  Unfortunately, I got comfortable (I was surrounded by friends in my local scene at a family-friendly event) and stopped paying attention long enough to lose my stuff.  A $3000 mistake on my part.

Stay safe out there, folks!

Have you ever had any of your gear stolen?  Tell me your story in the comments section below.