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New services help consumers keep track of their gadgets

Steve Mollman
For CNN
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(CNN) -- When Chua Si Zhen accidentally left behind her cell phone at a cafe, it wasn't the handset she was worried about losing. "It was the contacts, and the little info that I have in there, like my photos and everything," says the Singaporean.

Luckily a man did return her Nokia N70 handset within an hour -- but only after he tried to steal it first.

When the thief inserted his own SIM card into her phone, that triggered software she'd installed on the handset.

The program texted her family members with his phone number and other data that could be taken to the police. The thief, informed of these details by Chua's angry husband -- over his "new" phone -- agreed to meet and return the handset.

The program that Chua used is called PhoneBak, and the Singapore startup behind it, Bak2u (www.bak2u.com), is one of many companies capitalizing on a trend: ever more people losing track of ever smaller devices with ever more data stored on them.

According to the Consumer Electronics Association, 37 percent of U.S. households now have a notebook or laptop computer, 62 percent a digital camera, and 76 percent a cell phone.

Worldwide, "the number of cell phones shipped this year will exceed 1 billion," says Andrew Jaquith, a security analyst with research firm Yankee Group. "And laptops have become the dominant platform for personal computing."

As more easy-to-lose items like these hit the streets, an opportunity opens up for nimble companies such as Bak2u.

"The trends are quite clear: businesses and consumers want smaller, more mobile devices," Jaquith says. "It stands to reason that, all other things being equal, the aggregate demand for services to retrieve lost gadgets will increase."

I first wrote about Bak2u about a year and a half ago, when the company had just started up. Its main focus then was selling labels designed to help good Samaritans return lost gadgets to their owners.

The labels, which have a following, work like this: printed on each one is a unique serial number, plus a phone number and Web site address. You register your gadget with the company under that serial number, and then affix the label to your gear. If it's found by a good soul, he can use the phone number or the Web site to contact the company, who will act as the middleman for the return. The finder and owner stay anonymous.

Other services offering labels include StuffBak (www.stuffbak.com), TrackItBack (www.trackitback.com) and Stop (www.stoptheft.com).

The shortcoming of such labels, Chua points out, is that they "only work when someone finds your phone -- not when someone steals your phone."

Still, they improve your odds. StuffBak advertises a 75 percent recovery rate.

Now, though, the labels are just one option in a growing array of tools available. Last June, Bak2u began selling its PhoneBak software for PDA-phones and, six months later, for regular cell phones. The software has proven to be far more popular than the labels.

"With the software, you sort of make it more proactive," says Paddy Tan, CEO of Bak2u. "You don't really give much choice to the finders."

Sales of the software are growing, he says. Customers in Europe, the United States, Africa and other parts of the world are buying 7,500 copies of the software per month, compared to about 5,000 last September.

Meanwhile, the start-up launched another product this month, Verey I, that will e-mail you the IP address and other data connected to whoever stole your Mac laptop -- including a video of him sitting at your computer.

Absolute Software, a Canadian firm, sells Lojack for Laptops (www.lojackforlaptops.com), which beacons its presence to servers so that its whereabouts can be tracked down by local law enforcement.

A freeware application called IAlertU (www.slappingturtle.com) uses the sudden-motion sensor in recent Mac laptops to detect when the computer is being abruptly moved; it can sound an audible alarm and takes a picture using the built-in camera.

What's driving demand for such services is less the gadgets' monetary value and more the emotional value of what they contain. Photos, songs, messages and work projects are more than files on a memory card: they are pieces of our lives. Losing a new camera is annoying; losing family-reunion photos can be devastating.

To get an idea of how meaningful such "data" can be, visit the consumer electronics section of The FoundBin, a Web site where people describe their missing items -- and sometimes their ordeal.

In one listing (www.thefoundbin.com/lost-electronics-listing/974), a poster who lost his camera offers a $400 reward. The reward, though, isn't for the camera -- it's for the memory card, and the memories, that are held within.


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