Since a recent study drew attention to the startling number of laptops that are lost or stolen at U.S. airports, we thought it would be useful to outline some of the best ways for consumers to deal with laptop loss. Aside from the immediate financial loss and the loss of valuable files, a missing laptop can drastically increase your risk of becoming an identity theft victim. Fortunately, there are many precautions you can take to ease the pain of a lost laptop. If your laptop has already been lost or stolen and you have not taken these proactive measures, your options are more limited, but there are still steps you should take to mitigate the risks and costs of laptop loss.

What to do BEFORE your laptop is lost or stolen

Consider laptop tracking with LoJack for Laptops: LoJack provides tracking software that can locate your laptop via IP address when the thief logs onto the Internet. Their Absolute Theft Recovery Team promises to work with the police to get your laptop back (see site for more details).

Backup your files with an online backup service. The loss of important and valuable files such as financial documents, emails, digital photos and music can be far more frustrating and problematic than the loss of the laptop itself. By storing copies of all your files with an online backup service, you can be sure that if your computer goes missing or your hard drive fails, all those files can be easily recovered. Online backup services are easy to use, totally secure, and can save you a great deal of time, money and aggravation.

Guard against identity theft with an identity theft protection service. To an identity thief, a lost laptop is a goldmine of information. Losing your laptop could expose your online bank account, online brokerage account, name, address, telephone number, and email address, passwords, e-mails and personal accounting data to a criminal. If your laptop does go missing, an identity theft protection service will help prevent and detect identity theft.

Protect sensitive data. Make passwords work for you, not against you. Ideally, you should not store any passwords on your computer. This includes passwords that are stored in your web browser, tool bars or in a plain text format. Many Firefox users are not aware that under a default setting, Firefox stores all your passwords in plain text, alongside usernames and web addresses. To access and erase your stored passwords, go to your menu bar and select Tools, and then Options, and then click the Security tab. From the Security tab, you can go to Saved Passwords and then select Remove All.  If you must store passwords on your computer, you should at least be sure to use a strong primary log-in password to prevent unauthorized access to your laptop. Memorize it, and don't save it or write it down anywhere on or around your computer. Firefox also offers users the option of creating a master password, which must be entered once per session and protects other saved passwords. You can do this by going to the Security tab in the Options menu. There are several websites, such as GoodPassword.com, that will help you create very secure passwords. You can also encrypt sensitive data and disable instant message logging.

Use a laptop tracking and recovery service. There are a variety of products and services that are designed to either prevent laptop theft and loss or locate a missing laptop. If you are concerned about laptop theft at your office or in a hotel room, you can purchase a lock that is similar to a bicycle lock, which will deter thieves. There are also various alarms that will either alert you if someone attempts to move your laptop, or if you and your laptop are separated by more than a set distance. There are many different recovery services that use GPS to track a lost or stolen laptop when it connects to the internet. Some tracking software can be removed by reformatting the hard drive, but others are embedded into the computer itself and are more difficult for thieves to deactivate. Adeona offers high quality laptop tracking software that can be downloaded for free at their website.

Insure your laptop against loss or theft. Some computer manufacturers and distributers offer warranties that cover loss or theft. You can also purchase laptop insurance through a third party, or as part of your homeowners or renters insurance.

Label your laptop with your name and contact information. It is a good idea to label your laptop with your name and phone number in case it is lost and someone finds it and attempts to return it to you.

Be sure that you have the serial number for your computer recorded somewhere in your home. Reporting a missing laptop will be easier and more likely to be effective if you have the make, model and serial number on hand.

Be aware of the risk of laptop theft. One of the best ways to prevent laptop theft is to be conscious of the fact that laptops are extremely tempting and relatively easy targets for thieves. Do not leave your laptop unattended in public. At airport security checkpoints, pay attention to your laptop as it goes through the x-ray machine. Put a brightly colored sticker or other identifying mark on your laptop so that you can recognize it easily.

What to do AFTER your laptop is lost or stolen

Subscribe to an identity theft protection service. If you haven't already, you should definitely subscribe to an identity theft protection service as soon as possible after a laptop loss. Once your personal information has been compromised, there is no way of getting it back. But an identity theft protection service such as LifeLock or Identity Guard can help prevent criminals from using that information to open accounts in your name.

File a police report. While some police will not be particularly interested or concerned about helping you recover your laptop, others are surprisingly helpful. This is when it is useful to have the make, model and serial number available.

File a complaint with the FTC. If your laptop is stolen, this will serve as a record of the crime. It helps the FTC to analyze and detect patterns of wrong-doing, and may be helpful in the event of an investigation into the theft of your laptop or any identity theft that occurs as a result of your lost laptop.

Change all of your online passwords. Whoever has your computer can now gain access to your online bank and brokerage accounts, email, PayPal, eBay, Amazon and any social networking websites you belong to. Change those passwords now to prevent your online accounts from being compromised.

If your laptop contained information relating to any financial accounts, notify the financial institution immediately. If you use Quicken or other personal finance software, it is likely that your computer contains a map to all of your financial accounts. You should notify the fraud departments of each of the accounts you believe may have been impacted. Representatives from each of these companies will be able to provide you with information on what to do next, which may include changing the personal information on accounts or even closing them entirely.

Notify your employer. If your computer contained confidential corporate information pertaining to your job, you should notify your employer so that your company's IT staff can take precautionary measures to protect other peoples' personal data. In some cases, failure to do so could mean that you are breaking the law.

Keep an eye on Craigslist and eBay. It's a long shot, but if you are really desperate to get your computer back, you could try monitoring Craigslist and eBay. You could also check local resale stores and computer repair shops. There's always a chance that it might turn up.

Identity Theft Protection, NextAdvisor Guides, Online Backup Services