Past Issues of Government Technology

High-tech Crime, High-tech Crime Fighting

Technology helps reunite stolen computers with their rightful owners.

by / January 31, 1998 0
In Modesto, Calif., in the winter of 1995, two brothers -- one just returning from a short hotel stay at the public's expense -- decided to start their own computer business by selling used PC parts over the Internet. To supply their inventory, they burglarized local businesses with top-of-the-line computers. Their spree lasted only a few months but left dozens of businesses reeling from the losses.

Detective Steven Carter, with the Modesto Police Dept.'s Investigative Services Division said, "We became aware of this B&E [breaking and entering] team when there were several business burglaries where the method of entry was similar, and the stuff they took was exactly the same. Over a fairly short period -- about four months -- there were 32 different break-ins where the perps did exactly the same thing: They would just cut through all the telephone trunk lines to disable any alarms, then do a door or a window smash, and then go into the building and take only computers.

"And these guys were cocky," Carter added. "They would spend two to three hours in the business, picking and choosing the equipment they wanted and, in a couple of cases, even left messages scrawled across the walls, like 'Cops Suck! or 'Thanks for the computers!'"

The losses were emotionally and financially devastating to many in Modesto's business community. Insurance companies, when hit with repeated claims from the same business, began to wonder if they were becoming a victim of fraud, and some of the actual victims were driven to the brink of bankruptcy by the thefts.

"This investigation was high-profile from early on; everyone wanted it solved and fast. Businesses were being crushed by the repeated break-ins, and the businesses represented real people that were left hurting in the burglars' wake," said Carter. "I knew that eventually we'd like to get some of this stuff back to the people who lost it, but first we had to find a way to catch the bad guys."

Curious Exchange
The burglars had an uncanny run of good luck by never encountering an alarm system they couldn't disarm or a late-working employee to catch them in the act. Once on the case, the Modesto Police Dept. found their own modern-day solution to snag the bad guys. They set up a fax network with all the businesses that had been hit and a group of similar businesses. The system dialed each business in succession, from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., and hung up when it got through. If the phone lines were down, the fax would not connect, and every time there was any trouble connecting, a unit was sent to check it out. The burglars' good fortune continued, however, and the one night the system went down -- due to an operator's error -- the burglars hit again.

Fortunately, the brothers' luck ran out early one morning four days later. They used walkie-talkies to communicate, and on a clear spring night while they were cleaning out a company in local business park, local security guards picked up a curious exchange on their own hand-held radios.

"Basically, one of the guys had gotten jumpy and was telling his brother, 'I think I hear a cop coming. We might have been made.' Obviously, this would come across as suspicious, so security drove around the park to find the signal's source, listening all the time. When they drove up an overpass, they spotted [one of the brothers] below them jabbering away on the walkie-talkie and followed him as he drove off. The two guards detained him when he stopped at a Denny's restaurant and called us to the scene," said Carter.

In the guy's car, Carter found blue plastic bags like those left at the previous crime scenes and a copy of the phone book's computer section laying on the front seat. There were also maps with business locations marked and evidence that the brothers were planning to expand their illicit business venture into Stockton and Tracy, two nearby cities. By 9 a.m. that morning, the Modesto Police Dept. served a search warrant at the suspect's home.

"When we got to this three-bedroom house, every room had computers in it. In the master bedroom, the walk-in closets were floor-to-ceiling [with] computers. There was a shed with about 40 computers in it. And then we opened the garage; it was just packed wall-to-wall," Carter described, still with a sense of awe. "They had hung a blue sheet over the front so that the stuff wasn't visible if the door was open, and behind that they had PCs, laptops, CD-ROM drives, hard drives, modems, ZIP drives, monitors -- you name it and they had it. They even had boxes and boxes of three-and-a-half inch disks." One month later, the other brother was apprehended.

Finding the Owners
It took a lot of long hours to trace the computer equipment back to the owners -- some of it by traditional methods, with the victims examining equipment and providing identification numbers to prove ownership. But in most cases, police officers spent hours in front of computer screens trying to find the owners' names.

To do that job, Carter used XTree Gold 3.0 (see Editor's Note), a comprehensive file manager for Windows put out by Symantec Corp. With XTree Gold, the police were able to search directory trees, file lists and ZIP archives, finding old company letters and other identifiers to help in reuniting the computers with their owners.

"We were lucky that the perps weren't that smart. They had loaded new programs over the old but apparently didn't know they could have reformatted the computer and erased all the original owner information we were able to find," said Carter. "I used XTree Gold to search out and examine every file and folder I could find to figure out who the equipment belonged to. I sat in front of one computer for four-and-a-half hours before I found the name and address of an owner who came in and claimed the computer. We had to do this with 50 or 60 computers, and we had a lot of hard drives that had been taken out of their systems, so we had to set up a computer that we could plug these hard drives into one-by-one until we figured out who they belonged to as well."

Over their four-month spree, the thieves stole over $750,000 worth of computers and peripherals. The police department eventually recovered $300,000 to $400,000 worth of the stolen property, and 80 percent of that was returned to the victims. The two brothers are paying their price from behind prison walls. One of them, a previously convicted felon and career criminal, got seven years in state prison, while the other, with no previous criminal record, was given four years.

Carter closed the case with a lesson ringing in his ears. "More than anything, it taught me how much law enforcement can do by learning to use technology. Had we not had some computer knowledge, we couldn't have accomplished what we did. A few years ago, a lot of that unclaimed equipment would have never made it back to the owners and, even now, law enforcement is way behind the technology curve compared to the rest of society," he said. "Every department has a few people with computer knowledge, but there is a real need for specialized training if we are going to serve the public fully in a technological world."

Editor's Note: XTree Gold for Windows was discontinued by Symantec Corp. in November 1997. Its replacement is Symantec's Norton Utilities 3.0.

Ray Dussault is a Sacramento, Calif.-based writer.

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