Your compter may fall prey to the midnight requisition

An insidious form of thievery has appeared to take advantage of the unique features of
personal computers. Within moments, a thief can steal your random access memory and you
may not detect the loss right away. Or the felon can replace your 66-MHz 486DX chip with a
33-MHz 486SX worth half as much, and you might not be the wiser.

You reply "This couldn't happen to me." That's what I thought until it
happened to me.

My PC's motherboard had to be replaced. After a week of nagging and telephone tag, the
vendor's repair contractor arrived while I was out of the office. The repair was made in
my absence, and the computer was operational when I returned.

Maybe operational is not quite the right word. My PC was running sooooooo slooooooowly
that I could get a cup of coffee across the street before Microsoft Word would open a
document. Every keystroke prompted a spasm of clicks and whirs of disk activity.
Operations that normally took fractions of a second now consumed minutes. It was like
walking in knee-deep mud.

I called the help desk; later that day a technician came to look at my pathetic PC. He
said I had too much software running at one time. He disabled my memory-resident virus
checker, advising me to check for viruses when I was off the network.

I disagreed. It was the same software I had been running for months. Before the
motherboard went, I had been keeping word processor, mail and Web browser open
simultaneously without a problem.

I asked if the CPU chip on the motherboard was slower than the original or if the
memory cards had been removed with the old motherboard. He shrugged his shoulders and

After a couple more hours of slow-motion computing, my frustration and curiosity got
the better of me. I took the cover off and, to my dismay, saw empty RAM slots. Someone had
performed a frontal lobotomy on my computer. A CPU chip was there, but it lacked any
markings to suggest make, manufacturer or speed. Had someone perpetrated a switch there as

Had a crime been committed? Perhaps the repairman innocently removed the old
motherboard without noticing the RAM. Did someone else slip in unnoticed and help himself
to an electronic goody or two?

Budget cuts and continuing resolutions have raised the midnight requisition to an art
form. Repair parts and upgrades are getting harder to come by. Maybe a co-worker,
frustrated by the lack of funds or the convoluted procurement process, decided to take
matters into his or her own hands--literally. Or maybe a jealous colleague sought to
sabotage a professional rival.

Speculation like this can get out of hand quickly in the current atmosphere of cynicism
and paranoia among federal workers.

Like naive car owners at the mercy of an unscrupulous auto mechanic, most of us feel
helpless in the face of this genre of crime, so easily can a chip or CPU be extracted and
slipped into a pocket.

A thief can escape with thousands of dollars worth of technology, carrying nothing in
his hands. The victim may have to work on a crippled machine, made to wait until those
without any hardware get a PC.

What can you do? First, take the standard security measures. Challenge strangers in the
work area, lock doors and cabinets, secure your valuables in your absence, don't leave
valuables unattended, and so on.

To foil computer thievery:

These measures are not foolproof, but they will discourage theft. If they seem like a
lot to bother with, imagine the hassle you'd have if your PC were stolen or crippled. Your
productivity and your PC's security is primarily your responsibility. Don't learn that
truth the hard way.

Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal
information management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His own Web home page is at

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