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MIT Plagued by Thefts of Computer Chips

By James M. Wahl

Forget bicycles and VCRs. Thieves have been making a killing at MIT in the past few months stealing computer chips.

One of the biggest thefts was carried out around 4:00 a.m. on Aug. 15 when thieves raided five computers in an office in Building 37. They stole computer memory and components valued at $30,298. Other targets have ranged from personal computers in laboratories and dormitory rooms to laser printers in Athena clusters.

In one instance, staff members were baffled for several days when their computers were running slower than normal. When they checked inside the machines, they discovered that over two-thirds of the memory chips were gone.

Stolen property for the first half of the year was valued at $303,667, up from $134,626 last year, according to last month's Campus Police mid-year report. Such fluctuations are not abnormal, Chief of Campus Police Anne P. Glavin said.

Chip thefts on the rise nation-wide

The distinctively 1990s phenomenon of memory chip thefts is afflicting college campuses across the nation from Georgetown to the University of California at Los Angeles, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. The thefts are fueled by a worldwide shortage of memory chips coupled with an ever-increasing demand for memory by users running multimedia applications and powerful operating systems like Microsoft Windows '95.

Among the most frequent targets are 4-megabyte memory chips which, with no serial numbers or other markings, are difficult to trace. The postage stamp-sized chips sell for $150 to $200 each through legitimate channels but fetch $50 to $75 apiece when the stolen items are first sold on the black market, according to security specialist Kenneth Moinz.

Especially popular are Apple Macintosh chips. Some Macintosh computers like the PowerMac 7100 models have become easy targets because their covers are designed to slip off in seconds for easy repair and upgrades. "Press two buttons and the entire top comes off," Moinz says. "Someone can clear that memory out in a heartbeat."

Within hours of being stolen, the chips are often sold to "gray market" dealers who specialize in computer repairs and upgrades. Many thieves find buyers via want adds in computer magazines.

Preventing theft

The Campus Police Special Services Division has been investigating chip thefts with little success. "The investigation is ongoing and very active. We do have some leads," Glavin said. She said that the thefts vary substantially and that is is difficult to establish a profile of suspects.

"This type of crime appears to be a growing problem on campus,"Glavin said. "In general, many of these crimes can be prevented by keeping offices, laboratories, and dorm rooms locked when unattended."

Many computer users are securing their computers to desks with steel cables, padlocks, or metal plates glued underneath the computers. But these devices, while securing the machine itself, still allow thieves to unscrew the case and remove the memory chips inside, said Jerry Isaacson, a consultant at MIT's Information Systems Security Office.

Cage-like enclosure devices which wrap around the computer's shell, blocking access to the chips, can keep memory chips safe, Isaacson said. These devices are manufactured by Anchor Pad and Compu-Guard and sell for around $200 through the MIT Computer Connection.