For two years, no one at the San Fransisco-based law firm Cooley Godward knew that an employee charged with dispensing laptops instead was stealing them.
Between 1994 and 1996, Duraid Altai stole 200 machines worth $1 million, then sold many through newspaper ads. He wasn't caught until one of his customers called the firm, complaining about the laptop he'd bought from Altai.
Laptops are hot -- both to users and to thieves. The smaller and lighter they've become, the easier they are to tote -- and to steal. And they remain pricey, thus alluring to criminals. That's why 309,000 were stolen in 1997, up from 265,000 the previous year, according to Safeware, a specialist in computer insurance.
"They remain one of the most highly sought-after pieces of property stolen these days," says special agent Peter Brust, chief of the FBI's interstate theft unit. "Just about anybody will buy a stolen laptop."
Stung by the trend, companies and users are arming themselves with a host of new security devices, from alarm bells to encryption programs that protect data that can be more valuable than the machine itself.
Still, protecting laptops is a new battle, and so far the thieves are winning. "My colleagues in security work are all frustrated by the difficulty of protecting these things," sighs Mike Fehr of the global security unit at Levi Strauss, which has lost more than $1 million worth of laptops since 1991, both to internal and outside theft.
Laptops are particularly hard to safeguard when they're treated like luggage. Common sense precautions can't prevent all theft, yet too many people treat their laptops too casually. Some are kept unlocked on desks at night, many are left unguarded at hotels or airports.
One worker's laptop was easily snatched from a locked desk drawer -- because the key was kept under the victim's Rolodex, says Brian Haase, commercial products manager at Safeware. "If they thought about their laptop the same way they do their wallet or purse, thefts would go down," he says.
Employers, too, are just beginning to learn how to protect their growing fleets of laptops.
"We hear from customers all the time, they really want us to help them get a handle on it," says Tom Grimes, product marketing manager with IBM's Mobile Division. "They're beginning to understand what it's costing them, in terms of asset loss and data loss."
An Achilles heel for many firms is inventory control, as Cooley Godward discovered. Some companies hand out laptops so freely that they don't even notice when the machines begin to disappear, says Sgt. James Doyle of New York city's computer investigation and technology unit.
"A company will start looking for a laptop and suddenly realize they've lost 30," says Doyle. "They don't even have the serial numbers."
Since Duraid Altai was caught stealing laptops from Cooley Godward, he's paid $100,000 to the law firm and served a two-year prison sentence. And the law firm has changed the way it distributes its computers.
Instead of having one central technology department handle computer orders with little oversight, now departmental managers work closely with technical staff on purchases.
"The opportunity no longer exists for somebody to misdirect any order coming in," said Sherry Lalonde, information technology director for the law firm.
Since the thefts, Cooley Godward has also begun using some of the many security gadgets recently introduced to safeguard laptops.
Devices now available include Kensington Technology's lock and cable, which fastens laptops to a desk. TrackIt Corp. sells alarms that sound when your laptop is separated from a radio transmitter you carry. In January, IBM began selling a "Smart Card," a card key locking system to safeguard data and access to the machine.
Yet no security system is fail-safe.
Last summer, Levi Strauss installed a software program that enables a stolen machine to dial-up a monitoring service, only to find that the software wasn't installed in 800 of 2,000 of Levi's machines. The company is investigating the mix-up in the installation, which was carried out by Levi technicians after they were trained by the software company.
Although laptop theft has declined since the effort, Fehr is frustrated that no stolen laptops have been recovered.
Even the U.S. Navy, which boasts security measures worthy of science fiction novels, isn't immune. Bringing a Navy laptop out of a building prompts extensive cross-checking of serial numbers and the bearer's ID. New encryption systems are being tested to safeguard data on hard disks.
Yet Navy laptops sometimes disappear. "They've walked out the door," says Cmdr. Christopher Perry, assistant for network and data security for the Chief of Naval Operations. "We're trying to stay ahead."
For the foot soldiers of the business world -- the people who haul laptops back and forth across the country -- protecting these machines means protecting their livelihood. But safeguarding them is a struggle.
Since losing her laptop 18 months ago to a thief who broke into her car, Miami computer consultant Sandra Hernandez Adams uses encryption devices to protect the data on her machine.
"Security-wise, I'm doing a whole lot more," she says. "But probably there are additional things I should be considering. We'll see how safe I am."
Some tips on how to foil laptop thieves:
-- Disguise your laptop. While traveling, keep your machine in an ordinary piece of carry-on luggage or briefcase. Laptop cases are an advertisement to thieves.
-- Keep your laptop with you. It may seem obvious, but too many people put down their laptop while traveling, then walk away to make a call or get a snack.
-- Be especially wary when passing through airport scanners. Two thieves working together can delay you at the scanner, then nab your laptop as it moves through the conveyor belt ahead of you.
In the office:
-- Identify laptops. Companies should inscribe ID numbers on laptops and record model and serial numbers.
-- Lock them up. Secure all equipment to a fixed place. Thieves are usually opportunists.
-- Put alarms on equipment.
-- Assign responsibility. If workers know they are responsible for equipment, they'll take better care of it.
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Source: The Insurance Information Institute and Jim Lynch, crime prevention officer at the World Trade Center in New York City.