Laptop theft is on the rise New York Times It is the high-tech computer thieves who get nearly all the attention: the hackers, cyberpunks and industrial spies who delight in slipping past firewalls and penetrating seemingly impenetrable systems for fun and profit. But another type of miscreant is wreaking considerable havoc in the computer world: the burglar. As laptops become smaller and lighter, they also become easier to pinch. Desktop models are not immune: they are frequently stolen from businesses and schools. Even courthouses have been hit. This low-tech crime has led to a low-tech solution: locking up the computers. A number of computer security companies now sell cables, clamps and sundry other locks to secure desktop computers and laptops. Think of them as a bicycle lock, or maybe the Club, for computers. ``It's funny, but it works,'' said Wendi Goldberg, president of American Data Mart, a midtown Manhattan company whose motto is ``Securitywear for Hardware.'' In a 1998 survey of 458 corporations, government agencies and universities, 65 percent reported that laptops had been stolen from them within the last year. Laptop theft was the third most common type of electronic skulduggery, behind viruses (reported by 84 percent) and insider abuse (78 percent), according to the survey, which was conducted by the Computer Security Institute, an association of computer security professionals in San Francisco. Safeware, a Columbus, Ohio, company that insures computers, reported that it received 309,000 claims reporting stolen laptops in 1997, a 17 percent increase over the year before. About 100,000 desktops were reported stolen that year, the report said. The total cost of the thefts was put at $1.3 billion. Operating under the assumption that criminals will steal anything that has not been bolted down, many companies now bolt down their computers. An industry has cropped up selling steel-cable-and-Masterlock combinations to tether down laptops, and more complicated brackets and metal enclosures to fasten bigger desktop models to desks. There are even clamps like chastity belts that prevent people from getting access to CD-ROM drives. One pioneer in the lock school of computer security was Secure-It, a company based in East Longmeadow, Mass. William P. Brady, the president, said the idea had struck him in 1983 when he was selling computers. ``Small desktop computers were just beginning to make their way into corporate America,'' he recalled. ``Some people would come in and say, `Is there any way to secure these things?' We looked, and there was nothing on the market at the time. So we began investing these gizmos here and there.'' Some companies offer high-tech solutions: Computrace sells a product that directs computer modems to dial in to a central computer and give their whereabouts from time to time. But the companies that sell computer locks say the simplicity of clamps, cables and sometimes glue appeals to many buyers. Of course, no device is foolproof. Car thieves can cut through steering-wheel columns to get around Club-style locks, bike thieves can freeze and shatter the toughest locks, and a determined computer thief can probably find a way to beat a computer lock as well. But manufacturers say the locks work well as a deterrent. In many cases computer thefts are crimes of opportunity, experts said, and they are frequently inside jobs. Ms. Goldberg said she had heard of computers being mailed home from company mailrooms, whisked out in recycling bins or simply gutted for chips and modems by computer chop-shop suppliers. August, she said, is a big month for larceny; many who steal laptops or buy stolen computers want them for their college-bound children. Often, the cost of theft goes well beyond the price of hardware. Just over a year ago, when a computer filled with compressed information on credit-card accounts was stolen from a Visa International data processing center in San Mateo, Calif., the company had to take great pains to make sure that no card holders were put at risk. Many cards were reissued as a precaution. ``People always forget about the data,'' Ms. Goldberg said. ``An executive might not care much about the cost of a stolen laptop, but if it has his personal credit history on it, that's a different story.''
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