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Image: Wal-Mart PlayStation 3
Jessica Hill  /  AP file
Crime scene tape outside a Wal-Mart in Putnam, Conn., Nov. 17, 2006. Police said two armed men tried to rob a line of people waiting for the new Playstation 3 game system to go on sale and shot a man who refused to give up his money.
By Games editor
msnbc.com
updated 1/4/2007 9:49:58 PM ET 2007-01-05T02:49:58

This Christmas, as my flight touched down in Houston, I heard that my house had been burglarized.

What did our Grinchy thieves steal? My husband’s car — and my PlayStation 3, on loan from Sony.

Now, I’m a geek married to another geek, so we’ve got plenty of gadgets lying about. And I have a well-documented shoe-and-handbag problem. But the thieves bypassed all of our myriad finery to nick just two things: A coveted game console and a 2000 Audi A4 with a broken heater. Weird.

Or is it?

Demand far outstripped supply
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past three months, you know that the demand for the newest game consoles, the PlayStation 3, and the Nintendo Wii, has far outstripped supply. And prospective buyers have gone to great lengths to get their mitts on these new systems — including breaking into someone’s house on Christmas Eve.

Stories of robberies and violence began almost as soon as stores opened on Nov. 17, the day of the PS3 launch. Console hopefuls were robbed as they waited in line, trampled as stores opened for business and attacked after nabbing the sought-after systems. Even presidential hopeful Sen. John Edwards admitted that one of his staff volunteers tried to use sway to nab one of the coveted consoles.

Why all the hullabaloo? Ask the fans who waited in line to see “Star Wars Episode III,” or those that queued up in front of Apple stores when OS X shipped.  If you’re a die-hard gamer or Sony fanatic, you can’t wait until March or April, when store shelves will be well-stocked with PlayStations. You want it now. You want it yesterday.

Pure profit?
But one needed only to look at the listings on eBay in the days following the launch to see the motivation of many PlayStation 3 wannabes: pure profit . The machines, which retailed for $500 and $600, were reselling for more than $2000 immediately after the launch.

That demand dropped off steeply in the weeks following, with prices on eBay plunging from an average $2,367 on Nov. 16 to $724 on December 21, according to Michael Fahey, who detailed the price fluctuations in a recent post on gaming blog Kotaku.

“The root cause of all the prospecting and violence, in my opinion, was Sony's decision to release a console when they knew full well supply was nowhere near demand,” says Fahey. “Americans stole, lied, cheated, and hurt each other for the promise of a big payoff, which in the end amounted to nothing.”

So, were the perps behind our theft hard-core gamers or just looking to sell the console for a profit? Hard to tell. But even if they couldn’t distinguish a PlayStation from a Game Boy, the hype surrounding the hard-to-get machine certainly raised its profile. The thieves bypassed our year-old Xbox 360 and our ages-old Nintendo GameCube in favor of the sleek black PS3. 

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National frenzy
“There’s obviously been a national frenzy [over the game systems,]” says Sgt. Joel Tranter of the Phoenix police department. “And thieves know what’s valuable and what’s not.”

Most police departments I polled don’t segment stolen items by type, so it’s tough to know if our burglary was part of a nationwide trend, or just bad luck on Christmas Eve. But thefts of consumer electronics items like laptops, MP3 players and game consoles are most certainly on the rise.

“Thieves take items they can easily carry away,” says Enrique Garcia, press information officer for the San Jose police department in San Jose, Calif. “But this happens throughout the year, not just at Christmas.”

Keeping your stuff safe
So what can you do to prevent being cleaned out by thieves on Christmas Eve — or any other eve?

If you have a game console (or three) and any other covetable gadgetry, don’t plant these items in front of a  window — particularly if you live close to a street or a sidewalk, says Deborah Brown of the Seattle Police.

Don’t have a home security system? Consider getting one — and then plant signs advertising that your home is protected by an alarm. Thieves aren’t looking to get caught, says Garcia, so make your home less attractive to rob.

If the front of your house or apartment is obscured by trees or isn’t well-lit, consider breaking out the hedge clippers or installing motion-detecting lights. Make it easy for your neighbors to see if someone’s skulking around when they shouldn’t be.

Speaking of neighbors, make sure yours know when you’re going to be out of town. We hadn’t met many of our neighbors before the great PlayStation caper (this is, after all, the keep-to-yourself suburbs), but you can bet we’ve remedied that in the ensuing days.

And once the police alerted them to the burglary, they kept a watchful eye on our house. One of our neighbors even called our investigating officer when a locksmith arrived to change our locks.

Garcia says this is exactly the right thing to do.

“If you see a person walking around or riding a bike, they could be casing the neighborhood,” he says. “Call 911 — it’s a free service.”

Inside the house, make sure that you have lights on a timer, and leave a radio on so that prowlers think there’s someone at home. Consider etching an identifying number on your electronics — your driver’s license number, not your social security number — to make your goods harder to fence.

Hide covetable items
Also, keep track of the serial numbers on your TVs, DVD players, consoles — anything that you don’t want to lose. Hang on to receipts, and take pictures of your stuff in case you ever have to make an insurance claim. Hide all covetable goods in a closet when you go on vacation.

And finally, think about all the people who have access to your house — and who might have a key. Your contractor from three years ago? Your housecleaner? Dog walker? Babysitter? Think about recalling a few errant house keys — or change your locks.

While this may sound paranoid, consider this: The police say there was no sign of forced entry in our burglary, which likely means that our thieves had a key. So it’s quite possible that our Christmas Eve Grinch was someone we knew.

And that, frankly, is more disquieting than losing our car or our loaner PlayStation 3.

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