Professional thieves turn to computer software

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The Independent Online
The growing popularity and high value of CD-Roms have made them the latest target for the type of criminals who once robbed banks.

Ian Burrell reports that Microsoft, the manufacturer of the most sought- after packages, have become the pounds 30m victims of the biggest heist to date.

The two security guards on duty at a printing firm on an industrial estate in a small Scottish town could have been excused for anticipating a quiet Sunday night's shift.

But shortly before 11pm, a gunman and three other masked associates burst onto the premises of M & A Thomson Litho in East Kilbride. The terrified guards were tied up as the robbers, who knew exactly what they wanted, loaded up one of the company's own vans. They filled it with more than 100,000 CD-Roms, including popular titles like the encyclopaedia package Encarta and Office 97, a desktop publishing program. They also took more than 200,000 certificates which were intended as proof that the software was legal.

The gang escaped with a haul worth nearly pounds 10m, but with lost sales the raid could cost the company pounds 30m.

It was nearly five hours before the two security guards broke free to raise the alarm, unhurt but traumatised by their experience, eight days ago. But it was nearly a week before Microsoft, which owned the stolen material and had contracted the Scottish company to help package the software, decided to go public on the significance of the crime.

David Gregory, Microsoft's anti-piracy manager, issued a statement from the company's British headquarters in Reading, Berkshire, saying that the gang had been "well-orchestrated" and offering a "substantial reward" for information leading to their arrests.

He said: "Software theft is an increasingly serious issue involving well organised criminal gangs. Software theft defrauds the customer, who ends up with counterfeit or stolen goods which are not what they claim to be."

Microsoft believes that the team of robbers probably operates a sophisticated network of distribution with outlets all over the world.

Tony Collins, executive editor of Computer Weekly magazine, said the company had every reason to be concerned and said the raid was a "worrying development".

Mr Collins said that the demand for popular Microsoft packages like Encarta was unrivalled by other manufacturers, but the price of around pounds 400 for a relatively small product made them a perfect target for thieves. The CD-Roms cost only around pounds 5 to manufacture.