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Laptops are convenient target for thieves

(Published July 17, 2000)


Staff Writer

In Los Alamos, N.M. a computer containing secrets about the nationís nuclear arsenal is stolen -- then it mysteriously shows up again a few weeks later.

In Washington, D.C. laptop computers are reported stolen nearly every day -- but unlike the high-profile case in New Mexico, most of them are never recovered.

In todayís technology-driven economy, computer buyers want more processing power in a smaller package. The laptop computer suits that need -- itís lightweight, portable and powerful. But those same attributes that make the laptops so attractive to consumers also make them targets for thieves.

A look at the police reports from the District on any given week reveals dozens of laptop computers stolen from nearly every part of the city. Whether taken from an unwatched office or the trunk of a car, the plastic boxes with names like Compaq, Dell and IBM can bring in an easy $200 to $300 to an unscrupulous thief, said Lt. Philip Lanciano, a detective in the Metropolitan Police Departmentís second district.

Laptop theft is "all about ease of access. Itís really a crime of opportunity," he said.

One pawnbroker in Northwest Washington said he has seen the problem as well.

"Seventy percent of (the laptops) that came in were stolen," said Jake Youngblood of Samís Pawnbrokers in Logan Circle. He said the store was forced to stop accepting the computers because he couldnít resell the machines and lost money when he returned the stolen property to its owners.

Youngblood said he kept the computers in the store for four months, and that he could easily figure out if a computer was stolen by looking at the computerís hard drive. "Most people who steal them donít have the brains to take (the registry) off the hard drive," he said.

"A lot of these (laptops) are fenced, and they may even go to a legitimate pawnshop," said Lanciano. While some computers are fenced on the streets, many pawnbrokers in and around the District allow used laptops onto their shelves.

Managers at Ace Pawn in Southwest and Cozy Pawn Shop in Northwest said they continue to buy laptop computers and that they send the serial numbers to police.

That presents a problem for investigators such as Lanciano because only about 5 percent of people reporting a stolen laptop have a serial number to give police. But now he is heading up a special four-officer unit aimed at combating office theft in 2D. Lanciano said his division now does follow-up investigations with people reporting stolen equipment and has been able to find serial numbers for 20 percent of the stolen laptops.

Police detectives who have investigated this type of crime say that while a certain type of criminal makes a career of stealing from offices and government buildings, other thefts occur in private homes and parked cars.

A majority of the laptops stolen in the District are taken from offices, said Lanciano. He said one suspect who had been arrested in connection with a string of office burglaries admitted to 45 thefts from office buildings in the District, Maryland and Virginia. "I wish we had an M.O. (method of operation) for guys like that," he said.

"When we arrest suspects... what happens is they start confessing, and itís a privilege for them to tell us how many buildings theyíve gotten," Lanciano said.

He said downtown office buildings are especially vulnerable because unchecked visitors can often wander into an unguarded room with laptop computers, fax machines, cellular phones and hand-held computers.

"A person should not be able to pass the receptionist without being escorted by the person theyíre visiting," Lanciano said.

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator