Computer burglars spread net for computer

Burglars have discovered a new way to find out when your home computer will be unguarded: ring you up and ask. Charles Arthur, Science Editor, explains why a computer survey offering free software is something you can do without.

"Hello, I'm carrying out a survey on behalf of a major software supplier. Do you own a computer at home? You could be eligible for free software if you take part in our survey..."

Tempting words, but an independent group has warned that the only survey being carried out is of whether you'll be at home during the day. If not, you'll get an unwelcome visit - from burglars.

The Internet Content Register (ICR), a consumer protection group focussing on the Internet in the UK, says it has learnt of seven home burglaries over the past two months, each preceded by a bogus telephone survey. All the victims lived near the M6, in Staffordshire, Yeovil and Cheshire.

Martin Hawkes of the ICR said: "They seem to be trawling the Internet for Britons who give out their phone numbers in discussion group postings or Web sites. Then they contact them and get more information."

The burglars then zero in to try to find how valuable their computers are and when they will be unguarded.

In a formal warning, which it has checked with Scotland Yard, the ICR says: "The questionnaire appears to be pretty routine - inadvertently, you will be providing information about your working hours, nightlife, your computer equipment and your net worth to a burglar. It would appear that people are being burgled within a couple of days of receiving one of these survey calls."

Sometimes the burglars target more than one person in a company. "We heard about a case where one person was burgled in this fashion after receiving a call at work. A couple of days later someone else at his workplace got the same call - but because he had heard about the other person, he didn't give out anything."

The key information that the thieves are really looking for is the answer to questions like "Would it be convenient if we come along tomorrow at about, say, 11am to install your free software?" If the answer is no, that offers the perfect opportunity for a fruitful break-in.

The ICR suggests that if you receive one of these calls: do not provide any personal information about you, your lifestyle or your computer equipment; try dialling 1471 immediately after the call to obtain the telephone number of the caller; and, make a note of anything strange and contact your local police or the ICR with as much information - date, time and mannerisms, strange questions - as you have available.

If you have already received such a call, contact your local police, and advise the ICR so it can update its records. The ICR is on 01782 506916 or