SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- When a white-and-orange U-Haul truck pulled up to the loading dock at Wyle Laboratories and disgorged six masked robbers, two armed with guns, workers at the computer chip distributor got a taste of the newest kind of high-tech heist.
Ordered to lie on the ground, the 25 loading dock employees watched as four of the robbers stuffed their duffel bags with their loot: nearly $1 million worth of Intel 486 microprocessor chips.
Police say the Sept. 9 incident was the latest and largest heist in a growing series of invasion-style armed robberies of state-of-the-art computer parts in the high-tech Silicon Valley enclave of low-slung office buildings and neat green lawns south of San Francisco.
It's a "new trend" that is changing the nature of high-technology crime, says Julius Finkelstein, the prosecutor in charge of the Santa Clara County District Attorney's high-technology unit.
"These chips are becoming the dope of the '90s. They're more valuable than cocaine and a heck of a lot easier to dispose of," he says.
What used to be a discreet white-collar crime, in which employees would smuggle the small but valuable chips in their lunch boxes or steal them through sophisticated scams, now appears to have caught the interest of thugs more often associated with the drug trade and other violent crimes, he says.
And the criminal punishments for selling stolen property also are less severe than for drug dealing, he said.
In Silicon Valley, high-technology companies make the most advanced computer chips in the world, but they haven't figured out how to make them theft-proof.
At least seven of these armed robberies have been executed this summer in and around the valley, according to police.
Among the hottest items desired by the robbers is the Intel 486 chip, which sells for as much as $500 and is sandwiched in a package the size of a cracker. Also popular is the Single In-Line Memory Module, or SIMM chip, which comes in a strip of four plastic wrapped chips that sells for as much as $250 wholesale. The chips, made of the silicon that gives the valley its name, are made in a supply outpaced by demand.
"You have chips more valuable by weight than gold that are highly mobile and difficult to identify because they don't have serial numbers," said Sgt. Jim McMahon, chief of the high-technology crime unit at the San Jose police department. "It's a very serious commodity for theft."
The heists started in San Jose with two in July, then two in August in Milpitas and Hayward and three already this month in Campbell, Fremont and here in Santa Clara. Warehouse-type companies where chips are brokered or stuffed onto circuit boards have been targeted.
"We look at it as more and more prevalent," said Rick Smith, special agent of the FBI in San Francisco.
In several of the robberies -- including the one in Fremont, where $250,000 worth of chips and equipment was stolen from All Quality and Services Inc. -- some of the robbers wore suits, apparently to look like customers.
Santa Clara Police Sgt. Mark Kerby said he believed the Wyle Laboratories thieves had been hired for the job in the Los Angeles area, where the U-Haul van was rented.
"In my experience, this is typically a contract situation, maybe with an off-shore manufacturer," he said. "They will be paid for the product, and they don't have a clue what an Intel 486 microprocessor does."
Police and high-technology experts in two other regions -- Route 128 near Boston and the Research Triangle near Raleigh, N.C. -- say they haven't had such crimes.
"If it hasn't happened there yet, it's going to," said Kevin Fairchild, a high-technology security consultant.