'Mafia' snatches campus IT gear

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The Independent Online

The mafia in Eastern Europe is suspected of stealing to order millions of pounds worth of sophisticated computer parts from Britain's universities. The components are being smuggled abroad and sold on for huge profit in the former Communist countries.

The mafia in Eastern Europe is suspected of stealing to order millions of pounds worth of sophisticated computer parts from Britain's universities. The components are being smuggled abroad and sold on for huge profit in the former Communist countries.

The thefts are not only costing universities and their insurers hundreds of thousands of pounds but are bringing IT services in colleges to a halt.

"We are pretty sure that the stolen equipment ends up abroad. It's not certain where it's going but one possible route out is to Eastern Europe," said Bernadette Duncan, chair of the association of university chief security officers. "The systems they are stealing are specialised and if they came up for sale in the UK it would be extremely suspicious."

The association has now warned all British universities about the thefts and is advising computer and science departments to step up security.

The thefts have prompted an investigation by the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS), the body that monitors organised crime in the UK. Police sources say Eastern Europe is the likeliest destination for the stolen parts because there is a shortage of quality computing equipment leading to premium prices on the black market.

Mrs Duncan said: "There is obviously a market which a professional group or groups have identified. They do their homework. They find out how to get into these places and either have inside knowledge or technical expertise to bypass the alarm systems. They are making a hit every two months, getting away with a few hundred thousand pounds worth of gear each time. The thefts are causing a major disruption. It means anything from students not being able to finish work on time, to departments being unable to access the internet."

Universities hit by thefts in the past few months include Essex, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Bradford. The most recent theft happened last month at Manchester University. A gang broke in through the roof of the computer services department and dismantled part of the £25m mainframe computer, stealing a motherboard, and other pieces of equipment, worth about £200,000.

Said a spokeswoman for the university: "You would assume that they had come in, knowing what they wanted. They were stealing to order. But the whole thing came as a bit of a surprise as this was a highly secure unit."

Bradford University said that loss adjusters were still assessing the value of the computer parts stolen in June. A source at Edinburgh University said that £350,000 worth of equipment had been taken earlier in the year.

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