Why are memory chips such hot items for smart thieves? Mike Hewitt explains
One recent Thursday night, thieves broke into the European Weather Centre in Reading and stole £50,000-worth of computer memory chips - yet another robbery which, indirectly, can be blamed on software companies.

The theft of computer components has become one of the biggest growth sectors in the UK. In 1994 £200m worth of parts were stolen, a figure that is predicted to triple this year.

It's not that Microsoft's Bill Gates is going in with a jemmy and a bag marked "Swag". But companies such as Microsoft have been jacking up the amount of random access memory (Ram) computers need - and that has created a demand for memory chips, known as Simms, that is increasingly being satisfied by crime.

Take, for example, Windows 95, the new Microsoft operating system that is supposed to be launched this summer. According to Microsoft, the minimum hardware specifications for running this system are a 386 PC with 4 megabytes of Ram. Those who have tried it out disagree: you really need at least 8Mb. Windows NT, the new operating system for networks, is another story. Here, the minimum specification is a machine with at least 16Mb of memory. However, most users aren't happy with the results unless they up this to 24Mb or more.

Unfortunately, today's entry-level computers all tend to come equipped with 4Mb of Ram as standard. A £600 486 machine might seem like a bargain. But with Simms going for anything between £150 and £200 per 4Mb, you will have to spend at least another £300 to get the new breed of software running satisfactorily. Hence the demand for memory. Hence the interest shown by the criminal fraternity.

In Belgravia, London, according to the police, one company is being robbed every night. Despite taking sophisticated security precautions, firms in the City are suffering similarly. And the Treasury has warned all London- based government departments and agencies of the growing epidemic.

Some thieves use crude stick-ups during office hours. Others are subtler. They disguise themselves as air-conditioning engineers, cleaners, or something similar, complete with impeccably forged IDs. At night, when the offices are deserted, they go in and take the computers apart, stealing specially selected components, such as memory or hard disks. Then they carefully reassemble the boxes and depart, leaving little, if any, trace.

It is only next morning when the staff try to boot up their computers that they discover something is amiss. Many believe they have suffered a simple equipment failure and do not discover they have been "done over" until the service engineer tells them.

"Criminals go where the money is," says Richard Pursey, managing director of Adam Associates, a company that provides "disaster recovery" for firms hit by theft. "Computers per se aren't particularly attractive. Over the years, the cost of PCs has dropped like a stone. Not so memory and storage media, however." He explains that the price of Simm memory chips has remained artificially high.

"There's a massive demand for memory over the whole PC sector - one which the new generation of hi-tech thieves is happily catering to," Mr Pursey says. "One of our clients, a PC dealer, holds more than £4m of stock in a very high-security bonded warehouse. One night, thieves cut the telephone lines, squirted foam into the alarms, jammed the alarm's radio signal and broke in with sledgehammers. They then walked past all the high-powered servers, some costing more than £25,000 each, past all the expensive laptops, and went straight for the stores of computer memory.

"They had the time, and the technical know-how, to decide exactly what sort of memory they were after. They actually played tiddlywinks with those Simms they didn't want, and left the place in a tip. There's no doubt in my mind that they were stealing to order."

The question is: whose order? No one is prepared to point the finger of blame. However, there is a widely held suspicion that some computer dealers are not asking as many questions as they ought to of their suppliers. Not that anything can be proved. While computers have serial numbers, computer chips do not, and are therefore relatively untraceable.

"It is very difficult for companies to protect themselves against this sort of thing, especially as the thieves are so determined," Pursey warns. His company, in the middle of Greenham Common air base, is protected by a 17-mile perimeter fence and armed guards, and all the equipment is housed in a nuclear bomb-proof vault. Most firms would find it difficult to match such precautions.

There are ways of deterring theft, however. Twenty-four-hour security is an option, but expensive. Bolting the computers to the desk is another - but this will not stop thieves cracking them open for their components. Another possibility is disguising the PC. Most thieves target the higher- specification models. If you can make your machine look as elderly as possible, it may be ignored.

But perhaps the best precaution is to avoid advertising the fact that you have just bought new computers. Most thieves are alerted to their presence is by scanning rubbish bins for packaging: take it to the dump instead.

Eventually this sort of computer crime should decrease as the price of components comes down, making them less attractive. But for the moment it remains a genuine problem - one that can not only cause serious inconvenience, but put firms out of business.