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Armed Robbers Have New Target: Computer Chips

Times Staff Writer

Some computer chips are as good as gold, and that means they are attracting a new kind of professional to the computer industry-- the armed robber.

In the past six months, gunmen have burst into at least five Orange County computer firms and stolen or attempted to steal bundles of the tiny but expensive chips that keep computers humming.

No one has been seriously injured in the late-night attacks, although one guard at AST Research Inc. in Irvine was roughed up, police and company officials said.

The holdups appear to be the latest--and perhaps the boldest--strategy by crooks to take and resell computer parts, especially dynamic random access memory chips and central processing unit chips.

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Before the recent rash of armed robberies, police in Irvine and elsewhere had arrested employees of high-technology firms and others for taking chips home in their pockets or purses or directing shipments to friends’ homes. Burglars also have been caught trying to steal DRAMs and CPUs.

The average DRAM is about 1-inch square, and about 1,500 chips with a street value of $10 each can be stuffed into an ordinary grocery store bag, said John King, chairman of UC Irvine’s Information and Computer Science Department.

“According to some of the crooks we’ve caught (in previous thefts), there’s a shortage of DRAMs, and the crooks have little difficulty in disposing of them,” said Lt. Michael White of the Irvine Police Department. “One crook put an ad in the Pennysaver and sold them all.”

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DRAMs actually have dropped in price in recent months and have become more available. But that hasn’t stopped thefts, which increased last year and are still going strong, said Ken Rosenblatt, a Santa Clara County deputy district attorney specializing in high-tech crime.

But the armed robberies “seem to be a new phenomenon,” White said. Four of the five Orange County robberies occurred in Irvine; the other was in Stanton.

White said he is working with police in Stanton and other cities as well as with state and county agencies to come up with leads. None of the robberies has been solved yet.

The latest incident occurred about 10:30 p.m. Monday when four thugs armed with a .45-caliber handgun and an automatic weapon, believed to be a submachine gun, walked into Advanced Logic Research in Irvine.

“Some cleaning women were sitting on the stairs, and when they saw these people come in, they screamed and ran upstairs,” said David Kirkey, the company’s vice president for sales and marketing.

$105,000 Robbery

The women ran to another part of the company’s headquarters and plant, locked a door and called police, Kirkey said. The would-be robbers ran off without taking anything, he said.

Other Orange County firms haven’t been as lucky.

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On Jan. 30, two armed bandits forced an unarmed security guard at a Western Digital Corp. plant in Irvine to open an area where chips were stored. They bound the guard and fled with $105,000 worth of DRAMs.

Staff Writers David Olmos and Ken Yamada in Orange County and Carla Lazzareschi in Los Angeles contributed to this story.


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