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CALCULATING THIEVES MAKING OFF WITH LAPTOPS

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Great. Your airplane is set to take off and the guy in front of you can't make it past the metal detector.

He traipses back and forth through the doorway, pulling one alarm-triggering object after another out of his pockets. You've already sent your laptop computer and carry-on bag through the X-ray machine. Come on, guy.Finally, he passes inspection. You zip through, grab your suitcase and . . . the laptop is gone, snatched by the heavy-metal man's accomplice.

You've been had by one of the newest con games to sweep corporate America by thieves targeting laptop computers.

Prime thieving grounds are large airports and hotels.

Why airports? There are so many potential public places to leave belongings unwatched - pay phones, rest rooms, ticket counters, X-ray machines and storage compartments.

Safeware, an insurer of personal computers in Columbus, Ohio, reports laptop computer thefts have increased 39 percent since last year, robbing businesses of $640 million in hardware alone. The value of information stored on those machines is incalculable.

Of course, laptop computers are more prevalent now, too. But those numbers are in line with what Tom Riley sees at the Salt Lake International Airport.

Riley, police superintendent, says laptop computer thefts have increased dramatically in the past year - and so have reports of other stolen or lost high-tech equipment.

"Laptops, cellulars, a printer. We've had batteries (for electronic equipment)," Riley said. "It's kind of like eight, 10 years ago when video cameras were very popular. The industry had a sudden surge in thefts of that stuff."

At any time the airport lost-and-found office has a stash of five to six cellular telephones misplaced by careless travelers.

"Some people are very unsuspecting," Riley said. "We've had reports of people who left their laptops plugged in and charging on the mezzanine while they go down and get a cup of coffee. Or, they leave it in the smoking room, remember they left it and it's gone."

Riley said he's heard reports of professional theft rings but doesn't believe any operate at the Salt Lake Airport.

The metal detector scam isn't the only team act some thieves reportedly use. In the "condiment caper," one thief squirts a little packet of condiment sauce on a traveler, then points it out and offers to help clean it off. Cleaning up the mess requires the unsuspecting person to put down his or her bags.

That's when a second person reportedly swoops by and snatches the laptop computer.

Laptop computers are a hot item because of their size, value and resale potential. And the thefts usually aren't reported to police, says Kevin Coffey.

Coffey is police officer with the Los Angeles Police Department. He operates a side business called Corporate Travel Safety in Canoga Park, Calif., that specializes in travel safety seminars for large corporations and associations.

Most people don't report laptop computer thefts because they typically occur moments before they board a flight to another location and they don't want to miss their connections. Instead, Coffey said, they file a loss report with their companies.

"My recommendation is that people don't try to carry on so much luggage, especially business travelers," Riley said. "They don't want to check anything in, so they've got a suit bag, a briefcase, a laptop and maybe a fanny pack. The more you carry the harder it is to keep track of everything."

Manufacturers of laptop computers are responding to the problem with several innovations, including removable disk drives and audible alarms.

Absolute Software of Vancouver, British Columbia, makes a software program called Compu-Trace that, when paired with a monthly monitoring service, tracks the location of a computer through weekly automatic calls.

The program is triggered once a week as a computer is connected to a telephone line and dials silently into CompuTrace's tracking center, where the computer serial number and telephone number are recorded. If the laptop has been reported stolen, the company contacts local law enforcement agencies to report its location.

There is also a Stolen Computer Registry on the Internet (http://www.nacomex.com/stolen/stolen.html) where serial numbers, makes and models of swiped machines can be listed and then reviewed by insurance agencies, buyers of used equipment and law enforcement agencies.

You can reach Coffey at (stopthief@aol.com) or 818-348-3309.