Easy-to-lift laptops lucrative prizes for office thieves
By MARK NIESSE
Date: December 01, 2003
A man walked into an Atlanta office, made chitchat with two workers and sat down for lunch with them. Nobody noticed when he left with four stolen laptops.
In another incident, police officers stopped a woman who was nearly nine months pregnant as she left an Atlanta-area workplace and found a laptop strapped to her belly. And in yet another case, a thief walked into San Francisco-based Aligo Inc. during business hours, hid until everyone left and then took about a dozen devices worth at least $7,000, including laptops and personal digital assistants.
"All these things were missing, but no one could figure it out because there was no sign of forced entry," said Krista Van Lewen, who does marketing for Aligo, a wireless communications company. "He pretty much waited and then just went out the back door."
Office creepers -- neatly dressed thieves who walk into the workplace looking for pricey laptops or purses -- are a growing problem for businesses. Since laptops became commonplace in the mid-1990s, criminals have sought them in particular as a way to make a quick profit.
"They have pretty significant street value," said Carlos Villarreal, director of security for Trizec Properties Inc., whose buildings include the Sears Tower in Chicago.
Police estimate that laptops fetch from $500 to $1,800 on the street. And they say laptop snatchers know which brands are likely to bring the best price -- IBM, Compaq, Dell and Toshiba.
The cost to businesses goes beyond the hardware.
"The equipment itself is worth a couple thousand dollars, but the information the laptop holds is sometimes irreplaceable," Villarreal said.
For example, a presentation necessary to land a major business deal may cost a company millions, or lost contact information could take weeks to restore, said Officer W.L. Swann with DeKalb County police in Atlanta.
Office creepers have legions of unwitting accomplices -- employees with a false sense of security. Just because an office building has security guards or receptionists doesn't mean creepers will be deterred.
"People just don't think -- it would certainly help if the citizens had some awareness of their property," Swann said.
A big part of the problem is that the thieves don't arouse suspicion.
"These people typically look like everybody else, and they're just walking through the building," said Patrick DiGregorio, a vice president for property management company Nordblom Management. "A well-dressed person can easily walk into these spaces and be unnoticed."
Security officials say employees should hide purses and lock up their laptops. When someone visits the office, workers need to question what they're up to. Doors shouldn't be propped open, and security badges help identify who belongs where.
The prevalence of office creeping is hard to determine because it isn't broken down in police records. It's usually recorded as theft or robbery.
Companies reported average losses of $47,107 due to laptop thefts in 2002, according to the 2003 Computer Security Institute Computer Crime and Security Survey. About 63 percent of respondents to the survey said they were victimized by laptop thefts in 2002 -- up from 55 percent in 2001.
When office creepers first became a problem, several businesses got together with property owners and police to catch the crooks. One group called Metro Tech, formed in Atlanta in 1995, is now a national organization that shares information when crime occurs. Through Web sites, the companies and police share office surveillance photos and descriptions of office creepers.
But Daniel Millhouse, a manager at Barton Protection Services in Atlanta, said the only way to cut down on office creeping is to educate office workers about how vulnerable they are. To make his point, he'll grab workers' laptops or pocket their wallets during seminars about how employees should be on the lookout.
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