It’s a computer virus of sorts - one that eats monitors, printers and modems whole.
In the past five weeks, 20 computers from across Kootenai County have vanished.
But this virus doesn’t lurk through the telephone lines and corrupt circuit boards. Instead, it sneaks through the night and breaks in through building windows.
A rash of computer thefts has swept through Kootenai County. The burglars - who have yet to be caught - work fast and seem to know what they want.
They have pulled off their thievery despite locked doors, bright security lights and security systems. In one case they even smashed into the business while the owner slept in a trailer behind the shop.
They have made off with nearly $50,000 worth of equipment.
“It was as if they knew where to look and exactly what to do,” said Laura Elmore, office manager for Kaestner Electric, a company that lost more than $2,400 in computer equipment during two burglaries. “We were horrified.”
Burglars also struck twice in one month at the Farm Bureau Insurance Co. office on Government Way. They They took almost a dozen computers.
“Losing the hardware is one thing but having to spend the time replacing all the software and all the things you had in it is pretty devastating,” said John Astorquia, associate manager.
In the past, computer theft was fairly rare in North Idaho, said Kootenai County sheriff’s Capt. Ben Wolfinger.
But between May 13 and June 14, 20 computers - along with several printers, software discs, keyboards and monitors - were taken from eight Kootenai County businesses.
Because the cases are so similar, sheriff’s Detective Neal Robertson suspects one group is responsible for the majority of the thefts.
Six of the burglarized businesses are located in the area of Aqua Circle and Government Way. In most of the cases, the burglars broke in through a window in a door, taking only computers and computer-related items and then making a quick getaway.
Farm Bureau Insurance Co. on North Government Way was hardest hit, losing six computers in mid-May and another five computers on Friday.
“They took everything,” Astorquia said. “They knew what they’re doing and they’re gutsy.”
Although the door window was broken, the burglars did not vandalize the insurance business - nor the others. “There wasn’t a paper out of place,” Astorquia said.
“They’re very selective in what they take,” Capt. Wolfinger said. Along with computers, a television set, VCR and photocopier also were taken.
It has been a frustrating case for Robertson, who has combed the crime scenes for fingerprints and put the missing computer serial numbers in a nationwide computer system.
So far the burglars have left behind little more than some shoe prints and a small amount of blood on a broken window.
On the night of the second burglary at Kaestner Electric, the burglars tripped a silent alarm. Deputies arrived within two minutes and three seconds of the call.
The thieves already had made off with the goods.
Robertson suspects the burglars have equipment to monitor police radio traffic.
And none of the stolen equipment has surfaced.
“If I had to guess, I’d say it’s going elsewhere,” Robertson said. “I think it’s too small an area to sell off this many computers and not get caught.”
Bill Blair, owner of Inland Technologies computer company, said hawking used computers rarely returns anywhere near as much money as new equipment costs. The seller may get only 10 cents on the dollar - depending on how old the computers are, he said.
In Spokane, a thief may trade a nice laptop computer for $100 worth of drugs, said sheriff’s Sgt. Pat Vanwert.
But, “It must be lucrative because they’re going after it and getting a lot of computer equipment in one fell swoop,” Astorquia pointed out. “I think that computers by themselves are just more popular now,” Wolfinger said. “Everybody wants one so there is probably more of a market for them.”
The thefts have been hard on the businesses.
“We’re a small company. It’s devastating,” said Elmore. “We depend on those computers so much.”
Elmore has been doing her work by hand until they can get their computers running again. Kaestner Electric, like many of the companies, is in the midst of upgrading its security.
“It took us at least two weeks to begin functioning like normal after the first one,” Astorquia said. “Now we’re back to square one.”
Kootenai County sheriff’s officials ask that anyone with information regarding these burglaries call (208) 664-1511.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Swiped Computers have been stolen from eight Kootenai County businesses in the past two months. May 13: Kaestner Electric, 7735 Aqua Circle; Burton Intermountain, 7808 Aqua Circle. May 14-15: Lake City Sprinkler, 7617 Aqua Circle. May 15: Kaestner Electric, 7735 Aqua Circle. May 15-16: Farm Bureau Insurance, 6912 N. Government Way. May 18-20: Cannon-Hill Industries, 5605 E. Seltice Way, Post Falls. May 20-21: North Idaho Realty, 9075 Government Way, Hayden. June 2-3: Columbia Valuation Group, 510 Best Ave. June 3-5: Castle Mobile, 5273 N. Government Way. June 13-14: Farm Bureau Insurance, 6912 Government Way.