Burglars upgrade to chips

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN'S criminals have turned to the theft of tiny computer memory chips to make money. Police expect a rash of burglaries at city offices this weekend as thieves take advantage of the bank holiday to boost a business worth almost pounds 200m annually.

"The people doing this are a totally different crop - they're educated and bright, computer fanatics who know what they're doing," says Detective Inspector Bob Berger, who is co-ordinating a nationwide crackdown on memory chip theft. "They're aged between 14 and 35, and come from a mixture of backgrounds. Some of the burglars are straight from council estates, but some of the people controlling it are graduates, and from privileged backgrounds."

DI Berger led Operation Eastside, which in July raided 44 addresses in London, Leicester and Swindon after six months' investigation. A total of 29 people were arrested but none have yet been charged. Furthermore, they could only be charged with burglary, which typically attracts a sentence of 18 months or less.

"The maximum sentence for burglary is 18 years, but sometimes these people just get off with community service," says one police source. "The courts have clearly displayed the low priority they put on this crime."

Memory chips, also known as RAM (random access memory), are essential for all computers to operate. Modern PCs require at least 4 megabytes of RAM to function.

Burglars will have an added incentive this weekend. To run Microsoft's new Windows 95 operating system, a machine requires at least 8Mb of RAM, and some users have installed 16Mb or more, worth hundreds of pounds. The burglars can sell the stolen chips to small businesses looking for cheap upgrades, or to "second-hand" dealerships.

RAM thefts typically take place over the weekend. In London, Holborn and Islington are the most popular targets because they have a high concentration of blue-chip firms and small graphics design companies, which rely on powerful computers. The burglars themselves come from nearby areas: "Southwark has a huge concentration of computer-related burglars," says DI Berger. "It's safer than dealing drugs."

One boy aged 14 has been bailed on nine counts of burglary in the Islington area.

Bank holidays are popular times for thefts. Once inside, burglars can remain for hours, and sometimes remove the chips so tidily that the businesses do not realise their loss until the machines are restarted on the Tuesday.

The burglaries are a nation-wide problem. "We started following a trail in Islington and wound up in Leicestershire and Wiltshire," says DI Berger.

He recommends that companies concerned that they might be potential targets of RAM thefts should contact their local crime prevention officer.