WASHINGTON – University of Maryland police are looking for a thief who takes apart computers to steal critical parts, such as hard drives and memory chips, then reassembles the machines and leaves them behind.
Researchers said they are more worried about the loss of data on their computer hard drives than the computers themselves. University police said the thief has made off with an estimated $7,000 worth of parts in 15 incidents on the College Park campus.
“I care about what is on (the computer),” said Dr. Iqbal Hamza, a researcher in the Department of Animal and Avian Sciences. “If I lose my hard drive, I’ve lost years of work.”
Employees in Hamza’s department have reported missing computer parts at least five times since July, according to the university police incident ledger.
“I feel very insecure every day and I look around . . . to see if everything is alright in my office each morning,” Hamza said.
University Police Maj. Cathy Atwell said the burglar enters locked offices without force, sometimes striking several offices inside the same building at once. Because he reassembles the computers after gutting them, she said, the victims often do not know anything is wrong until they turn on their computers the next day and realize that something isn’t right.
Besides the Animal Sciences Department, the thief has stolen parts from the Computer and Space Sciences building, the A.V. Williams building, the J.M. Patterson building, and Holzapfel Hall. A Sept. 4 heist from five offices in the chemistry building netted more than $1,000 worth of computer parts, police estimated.
When asked whether the thief might be after information on the computers, such as personnel files, Atwell said, “There is no indication of additional theft.”
Chemistry and Biochemistry Chair Michael P. Doyle said that no sensitive information has been stolen from his department.
“For those pieces of information that are sensitive, we have a back-up and the data are encoded,” Doyle said. “We didn’t have to do that before.”
Most of the equipment stolen in the chemistry building came from the geology department, which occupies part of the building.
Hamza said he and his colleagues are making “massive back-ups” of their important files and that the department is now locking hallway doors that normally remain open. He said even he has trouble getting to his office now.
“The problem is that we have too many doors,” Hamza said.
Atwell said investigators have identified a suspect, but they do not have enough evidence to seek an arrest warrant. She could not speculate about when an arrest might be made.
“I think it’s a good sign that we have a suspect,” Atwell said.
Whoever the thief is, Hamza speculated that he must be “an anal retentive guy” to put the computers back together.
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