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Putting a lock on laptop theft

A new program hopes to discourage the theft of notebook computers

It’s an incident that could be an ad for a cell phone: a Boston University student returns to his dorm room, and standing outside the door, hears an unfamiliar noise. The student pulls out his phone and calls the BU Police, who speed to the scene, arriving just moments after the intruder has fled up Bay State Road, a large sports bag clutched under his arm.

Following at a safe distance and still on his phone, the student reports the intruder’s progress, block by block, to the police, who head off the suspect at the next street corner. Inside the bag, the police find two laptop computers.
The thief is arrested.

BU Police Officer Peter Shin, who recalls the dramatic chase, thinks it could also be an ad for something else: a new program that encourages laptop owners to register their computers with the BU Police.  The program Called STOP, which kicked off at last week’s Wellness Fair, records serial numbers and issues aluminum tags that are glued on to laptops. The tags are marked with a number as well as a bar code, and they also mark the computer with a “tattoo” that is impossible to remove without damage to the casing.

Shin reports that both Harvard and MIT have used the STOP program and found that it improved their chances of recovering a stolen laptop. Here at BU, says Shin, students report an average of four laptops stolen each month. From September 2003 to September 2004, the last year for which numbers are available, the BU Police Department logged 50 reported thefts, nearly half of them from dorm rooms. Four of the stolen machines were left unattended in University libraries. Shin says the total cost of the purloined machines was estimated at $78,000, or about $1,700 each.

Nationally, the number of laptop thefts remains a mystery, but the most recent CSI/FBI Computer Crime and Security Survey puts the amount of money lost in 2004 as a result of laptop thefts at $4,107,300. Robert Richardson, editorial director of the survey, says that number represents the cost of the machines plus the cost of replacing the information lost as a consequence of the theft.

Boston University students who would like to register their laptops should visit the STOP registration page on the BU Police Web site or call 617-358-1843 for more information. Students may also request information by e-mail at dredd@bu.edu. There is a $10 fee for registration.