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Relay Devices Worth $800,000 Stolen in Palmdale

March 06, 2001|ZANTO PEABODY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thieves armed with employee access codes took $800,000 in telecommunications equipment from a Broadwing Communications building in Palmdale, investigators said Monday.

Eight small devices used to relay fiber-optic signals--devices valued at $100,000 each--were smuggled out of the unmarked building late Sunday night, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and company officials. "It looks as though it's definitely an inside job," Sheriff's Sgt. Vincent Burton said.

The devices that were stolen are used to relay and amplify signals for telephone calls, Internet traffic and other communications over fiber-optic networks, according to company officials. Burton said the "amplification cards" taken from the facility carried signals for military as well as commercial clients. Investigators have made the case a priority, he said. "They [the thieves] have relays for the military phones and stuff like that, and we have someone walking into a building with $1 billion worth of equipment [in it] and walking out with some of it."

Roger Rosenberger, Broadwing's vice president of operations, refused to confirm the value of the gear in the building or that the cards were being used by the military.

The thieves passed three security clearances to gain access to the laptop computer-sized cards, Rosenberger said. Once inside, they "quickly and methodically" plundered the computer networks of Broadwing and three other companies leasing space in the building, which he declined to identify.

Sheriff's Det. David Bower said the thieves passed over devices that were similar in appearance to those stolen but had a lower resale value. "From what I learned during the night, those amplifiers are worth $200,000 to $300,000 on the street," Bower said.

Rosenberger said all four companies in the building are growing quickly, leading to a constant parade of vendors and contractors with access to the security codes. But up till now, theft has not been considered a serious threat, he said.

"This just hasn't been on the industry radar screen as an issue," Rosenberger said from Broadwing's offices in Austin, Texas. "We've talked to the other communications firms, and they haven't had this happen either."

Broadwing had no video surveillance at the site, Rosenberger said. The building, surrounded by security fences, is equipped with an alarm system and electronic combination locks that require access codes.

On Monday, Broadwing changed access codes to all its California facilities and hired private security officers to guard the Palmdale building.

"We haven't seen a need to have guards 24-7 at this site," Rosenberger said, "and I don't see [security guards] as a lasting solution at this site or others across the nation."

But Julie Snyder, operations manager for Bernes Group, a Los Gatos technology security firm, said such thefts are a growing problem among telecom businesses that are too trusting of employees and contractors. Lax security measures open them to high-dollar thievery, most often by those with access codes, Snyder said.

"Those are the most difficult cases to solve," she said. "Unless you have someone's picture on closed-circuit TV, you'll have a leg-long list of who has entered and exited the building. Then it becomes a low-tech, accusatory investigation, just sitting people down and asking them where they were last night."

Rosenberger said the risks are greater in Southern California and the Silicon Valley, where the companies that provide the pathways for high-speed Internet communication are constantly expanding.

Will Strauss, president of Forward Concepts, a Tempe, Ariz., firm that tracks sales and thefts of computer hardware, said there is a burgeoning international black market for the kind of technology stolen from Broadwing.

"No U.S. company is going to chance buying on the black market, but [people] overseas want the equipment without regard for where it came from," he said.

Broadwing Communications, a wholly owned subsidiary of Cincinnati-based Broadwing Inc., operates nationwide optic networks and provides broadband services. It also has a sales office and technology center in Los Angeles.

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