This week Intel, the world's biggest manufacturer of silicon chips, is expected to announce a number of steps to combat the new crime wave, including the use of serial numbers.
At the moment chips are largely anonymous, making it difficult to identify a stolen batch. Intel and other leading manufacturers have been looking for ways to combat the threat.
Specialists believe, however, that even if all chips were to be coded, the threat would still be potent.
The most powerful chips often fetch prices on the black market worth more than their weight in gold or platinum, making them a highly attractive target for armed robbers. A carrier bag of chips can be worth millions of pounds.
Some months ago Datrontech, the UK chip memory supplier, had one of its delivery vans hijacked in a multi- million-pound robbery. In a raid on an Italian personal computer manufacturer, 10 men got away with more than pounds 4m worth of chips. And in the heart of California's Silicon Valley, Wyle Laboratories, a company closely associated with Intel, also suffered an armed raid.
The robberies are now so big that they often affect the market for the chips. The price rose by more than a tenth after five armed men tied up five workers at a factory in Oregon owned by OKI, one of the world's largest manufacturers of printers and fax machines, and stole more than pounds 1m worth of dynamic random access memory chips.
The black market flourishes thanks to a shortage of some advanced chips, such as the latest versions of Intel's 486 and its even rarer pentium chips.
The problem is compounded as manufacturers tend to deal directly with only a handful of large PC manufacturers, such as Compaq, Dell, ICL and IBM. Smaller manufacturers have to source their chips through distributors - which themselves are becoming the target of thieves.
The manufacturers hope users will shun stolen chips once they are identified as such. However, some experts are sceptical. In Britain alone there are hundreds of small manufacturers of clones of IBM PCs that may be prepared to risk buying stolen goods in the belief that buyers will never open their computers.Reuse content