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Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

    New technology means all kinds of new possibilities for crime and scams, including outright theft by bogus grannies


    by Alan Zisman (c) 1996 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #343 May 21, 1996   High Tech Office  column

    New technologies bring all sorts of expanded possibilities, not the least of which are new ways to cheat, defraud and steal. For some time now, high-end CPU and RAM chips have been a target for thieves who take them right out of individual computers, as well as stealing them in bulk and from stores, warehouses, distribution centres, and in transit. Not only are they small and expensive, they're unmarked and easily resold. They've even become a sort of replacement currency for illegal transactions, literally worth their weight in gold, but easier to carry across international borders than large quantities of currency or precious metal.

    Reports of other sorts of high-tech crime are coming in from around the world. From Australia, we hear of a wave of cybertheft--obtaining users' Internet log-on names and passwords, and using them to run up large on-line charges. While the use of other people's on-line accounts is nothing new, international Internet service-provider Netcomm reports that with the large increase in new Internet users, this has become a growing concern.

    Last year in Australia, a hacker posted details on the Web, including credit-card numbers, of 1,200 subscribers to Ausnet Services, a local Internet provider. Netcomm suggests users be wary of anyone seeking copies of the configuration files used by popular 'Net access programs such as Trumpet: these often include users' log-on and password information. Giving an acquaintance access to these files when seeking technical help is also giving that person the ability to bill your account.

    The growing popularity of the Internet has resulted in its use in scams, but the growing popularity of portable computers has resulted in an increase in outright theft. Theft of notebook computers was 30-per-cent higher in 1995 than in 1994, according to Columbus, Ohio insurer Safeware Insurance, which specializes in insuring PCs. It estimates that one out of every 14 of the 3.5 million notebooks sold in the U.S. last year was stolen.

    Airports have become a particularly likely place for notebook theft: the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has issued a warning about the potential for theft when sending computers through x-ray machines or metal detectors. It suggests owners wait until the last possible moment before putting down their notebooks, and keep careful watch as they come out at the other end.

    In one airport incident, a traveller bumped into an elderly woman. He put down his notebook to help her get back on her feet, only to see it scooped up by a thief, who ran quickly down a corridor, while the not-really-elderly woman ran quickly in the opposite direction.

    Get in the habit of carrying your computer in a generic briefcase or bag, rather than a fancy, branded computer case which virtually cries out 'Steal me!' For additional security, you can purchase cables to secure your computer to table legs.

    Now, let's think about your information. Be sure to back up valuable data before taking your computer on a trip. If you're uneasy about having anyone else get access to your personal or business data, you might want to consider encrypting or password-protecting your business records. Several software packages including Lotus Notes or Microsoft Excel offer such features, and Windows 3.1 users can also purchase utilities such as Norton DiskLock for added protection, while Mac users may want to look at the FolderBolt utility. Both sell for about $125, and allow users various levels of encryption and password protection for the contents of their hard drives.

    Computer manufacturer NEC learned this lesson the hard way on April 3, when thieves raided its U.S. headquarters in Mountain View, California. They made off with six notebooks, all belonging to (ironically enough) managers of the company's notebook division, and containing marketing plans, pricing and product specifications for the coming year. NEC suspects the thieves were more interested in the contents of the hard drives than in the resale value of the hardware: now it's rethinking its plans for the coming year.

    Whether your data is stolen on purpose or as a side effect of running into a bogus granny, the result can be a real disaster. As with all the other computer-disaster scenarios, your first line of defence is to always have a recent backup. And don't keep it in the same bag as your portable computer--keep at least a couple of generations of backups in multiple locations.


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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan