Stolen computers worth pounds 500,000 seized by police

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The Independent Online
POLICE have seized over pounds 500,000 worth of stolen computers and pounds 80,000 in cash after an investigation into thefts from companies throughout London.

Operation Twilight began in the Charing Cross Road area, where advertising and design companies have had tens of thousands of pounds' worth of equipment stolen. As the investigation gained momentum it spread across central London and the City. Officers involved say machines are stolen to order for second-hand computer dealers. The thieves make about pounds 1,000 per machine, typically pounds 8,000 to pounds 10,000 for a night's work.

Detective Inspector James O'Connell, who led the investigation, said it had resulted in 20 arrests, and the closure of three companies selling second-hand equipment. He expects five or six people to be charged.

The inquiry began after more than pounds 300,000 worth of equipment went missing from premises in Covent Garden, Leicester Square and the Strand during the first 14 weeks of the year. Similar figures were reported for thefts from offices around Marylebone. Four weeks ago, a entire lorry-load of equipment worth pounds 250,000 was stolen but later recovered.

Det Insp O'Connell said thieves usually left behind less popular models, taking only those that shift easily. 'People are making a killing out of going into premises and stealing to order.'

While police were searching one dealer's premises, a courier van arrived full of brand new computers stolen in central London. Another dealer was caught with 10 machines stolen from an educational establishment in south London, and pounds 79,000 of cash in his briefcase.

So far, computers are being stolen for the sell-on value of the hardware alone. If criminals realised the potential value of commercial or personal data in the software the problem could become far more serious.

Detective Inspector John Austen, head of Scotland Yard's Computer Crime Unit and chairman of Interpol's European computer crime committee, warned yesterday that small and medium-sized organisations such as doctors' practices and hospitals were now particularly vulnerable to computer crime, including both theft and people tampering with data. 'There are plenty of malicious people around, interested in blackmail,' he said.

He warned that doctors risk being sued by their patients under the Data Protection Act 1984, which states that those holding personal information, such as medical records, must take security measures to avoid unauthorised access to data and the risk of it being destroyed, disclosed or altered.

The computer crime unit at Scotland Yard, formed in 1984, has been responsible for about 20 convictions since the Computer Misuse Act 1990. Det Insp Austen said he believed there had been over 30,000 penetrations of computer systems during one year from 1990 to 1991; there was a particular trend for employees to steal information and sell it on to rival firms.

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