Computer theft more than hardware Replacing lost data is often more costly than equipment itself

June 01, 1998|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Computer screens glowed through dark windows as Sgt. Gary Gardner walked around a Columbia office building and trained his flashlight on several doors, looking for pry marks.

It was the first night of a 12-day stakeout by Howard County detectives trying to halt a burgeoning crime trend -- theft of computers.

With valuable components that easily slip into shirt pockets, computers make tempting targets for thieves. A recent surge in such thefts around Baltimore mirrors national trends, and experts say more will surely follow.

This spring, burglars have stolen nearly $1 million in computer equipment from about 40 Howard and Anne Arundel County homes and businesses. Baltimore County police report that 172 computers were stolen -- 50 from schools -- in 1997.

These totals don't include the valuable data lost when computers are stolen.

Emerging as a problem five years ago in California, computer theft now costs U.S. industry $8 billion a year, with consumers paying that bill in higher prices, experts say. Analysts and police attribute the increase to the high cost and small size of many computer components.

Stolen Pentium chips can sell for $600, and some high-end laptops can fetch half their list price.

"As long as computers keep shrinking in size, there's going to be a growing market for stolen goods," said Robert Zises, executive director of the Stolen Computer Registry, a national clearinghouse for computer information.

Local police reported few stolen computers four years ago, saying thieves often stole easily hocked televisions and compact disc players. Authorities say the burglaries in Howard and Anne Arundel counties are evidence of a steady increase in the number of such thefts.

In Howard, the stakeouts started after detectives noticed a rash of thefts from office buildings that began in March.

Though the stolen equipment was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, other costs far exceeded that figure.

"Imagine if someone stole your computer," said Gardner, a property crimes supervisor. "Think of all the information stored there. Think of having to replace it all. This is a big deal."

When burglars struck Best Insurance Brokers Inc. in Elkridge recently, they stole a $13,000 Hewlett Packard computer system -- but about $250,000 in information purchased from the state was lost forever, Best executives said.

"It took four years to enter that data into our system," said William McNamara, a Best vice president.

"That was the most upsetting part. The burglars passed up fax machines and telephones and televisions that we could have replaced that day."

McNamara added: "This is the best advertisement for backing up your data."

A similar story is heard from officials at Ryder Trucks regional headquarters in Columbia and the Howard County Tourism Council in Ellicott City.

Thieves not only took an expensive computer system from Ryder, they vanished with 60 days of painstakingly entered data about dealerships and trucks. That took weeks to re-enter, a Ryder executive said.

Burglars stole two computers from the Tourism Council that contained a vast database of potential visitors.

"The economic impact of this theft goes beyond our offices," said Karen Justice, executive director of the council. "Even though we might be able to recover it eventually, it will cost us at least a month of work."

Thieves probably quickly sold the computers to street dealers in stolen property or to secondhand computer shops or pawn shops, according to experts and police.

Many personal computers are broken down into their chips and processors.

The parts sometimes find their way into a vast "gray market" of goods, trading like commodities, bought and sold by buyers who might be unaware the property was stolen.

Sometimes, though, store owners quickly sell intact computers, especially laptops, to individuals.

"Higher-end laptops are really hot," said John O'Brien, president of Lawrence O'Brien Inc. in Potomac, which deals legally in used computers.

O'Brien works mostly with businesses selling hundreds of computers. When he buys individual computers, he asks for several forms of identification to foil thieves.

The potential for quick turnaround worries police trying to track stolen computer equipment. Many officers hope legislators will put secondhand computer shops under the same restrictions as pawnshops, which must wait to sell the equipment and take detailed information about the sellers.

"Sometimes these guys just don't care where the goods come from," said Sgt. George Belleville, a property crimes supervisor with Howard County police. "And finding out where it comes from later is nearly impossible."

In Baltimore, where secondhand stores are under restrictions similar to pawnshops, police have noticed more computers being sold on the street and at flea markets, said burglary Detective Mike Steyer.

The Chubb Group, a major insurer for homeowners and businesses, has seen computer theft claims rise from a few million dollars in 1993 to nearly $25 million in 1997.

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