August 1999

Good timing, investigation solve rash of computer thefts

Security investigator Greg Miller (left) and Michael Muir display some of the recovered property.
If you use a personal computer at work and would like to hang on to it, you’ve known for some time that you should lock your office doors at night and practice other common security measures. Not doing so means running a risk of arriving one morning to find a dusty void where your PC once sat.

That almost happened to Michael Muir when he walked in on someone who was in the process of lifting his laptop. Thanks to Muir’s reaction and Lab security’s quick work once he had notified them, ORNL’s bad experiences with a computer thief are over.

For several years a rash of computer thefts had plagued ORNL. PCs, memory chips, peripherals and other electronic items were disappearing. There was the unsettling knowledge that thieves were among us.

Then one evening last fall in Building 2001 someone slammed Muir’s office door in his face as he returned from a snack machine. The Corporate Information Office staff member bulled his way into his office and found a man packing away Muir’s laptop.

After the man fled, Muir notified the ORNL Protective Force, which sealed all exits at the Lab. Muir’s description was good enough that when a security police officer stopped the suspect trying to leave, security investigator Greg Miller and other officials were certain enough after releasing him to search his office.

Miller’s search turned up clothing matching Muir’s description and some of the missing equipment. Figuring he would try to return to work, security officials programmed automatic badge readers to deny the suspect entry through the gates. His attempted entry set off an alarm in the badge system, and when the suspect finally tried to enter through the main portal he was nabbed by a security police officer.

Several months and a guilty plea later, ORNL has about $12,000 worth of equipment back—including two laptops, two camcorders and a digital camera. And ORNL is able to close a four-year-old case, says ORNL Security Manager Bill Rich.

“When security responsibilities were returned to ORNL from Energy Systems a few years ago, one of the relationships we continued with the FBI and with Energy Systems was a criminal investigation of recurring computer thefts at the Laboratory,” Rich says.

In early October 1998 ORNL assumed responsibility for the investigation and interface with the FBI. But it all boiled down to timing—when Muir interrupted the theft in progress at the Quonset huts last October 28.

“(The suspect) was pretty sharp,” says Miller. “He eluded an FBI investigation for almost three years.” Miller says Muir did the right thing in getting a good description and notifying security.

“This fellow, who was living well beyond his means, had been covering his tracks well,” Rich says. “He was selling the stuff on the Internet; often cannibalizing it so that it couldn’t be traced back. The items he has returned are probably only a small part of what was stolen.

“But he has lost a lot more than that. He was in line to be offered a job at the Lab. That’s gone out the window. He’s been kicked out of a Ph.D. program and also lost a university job. His career has pretty much been ruined.”

The perpetrator was sentenced to five years probation and 300 hours of community service and ordered to pay $71,000 in restitution following his guilty plea in federal court.

Muir’s quick thinking enabled Miller and ORNL’s security forces to identify and close in on the thief and stop what appears to be a one-person crime wave at ORNL.

“The computer thefts started at about the time this guy came to work here. Since he was caught we haven’t had any,” Rich says.

That doesn’t mean we can let our guard down. All Lab staff members should continue to lock office doors when they are away, secure government and personal property and keep close track of equipment assigned to them. Just as if he were still around.—B.C.

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