Identity Theft Risk at MATC

August 5, 2005


It was a mistake that put hundreds of MATC applicants at risk for identity theft. The mistake involved old applications, filled with personal information that anyone could have gotten their hands on...including us.

27 News obtained about 100 applications that were pulled from a dumpster at MATC. On these applications: social security numbers, birth dates -- even canceled checks. Consumer advocates says it's enough information to have your identity stolen, and wreak havoc on your life.

Scott Peterson, who happens to be an employee of WKOW-TV, was shocked when we showed him his 2002 application and transcripts from Madison Area Technical College.

"That's really disturbing to me," Peterson said. His application was one of about 100 obtained by 27 News in mid July. They came from an unlocked dumpster, in an area surrounded by a fence with an open gate. The dumpster is actually a large trash compactor used by the school to dispose of documents. But in this case, it appears the compactor had not been activated.

On the applications -- lots of stuff that crooks could go wild with: full names, addresses, phone numbers, social security numbers, dates of birth, and even high school and college transcripts. All left in an unlocked dumpster in the middle of a parking lot with no security guards in sight.

Glen Loyd from the Wisconsin Department of Consumer Protection feels companies and institutions aren't doing enough to protect your good name. And this case at MATC is a prime example.

"Obviously they could steal somebody's identity because these are representative of someone's identity," Loyd told 27 News. Loyd says with the information on these applications, a criminal could open a new credit card in your name, drain your bank accounts, purchase expensive items, and even obtain a cell phone, and rack up thousands of dollars in charges.

"A lot of us aren't as careful as we could be." Loyd said. "And a lot of institutions...I think you've done that institution a favor by pointing out a weakness in their system."

Peterson says he's always been careful about identity theft -- especially with his common name. "It really does make you pause and think about the next time your social security number or address," Peterson said. "It really makes you think about, where's this going to end up?"

MATC refused our repeated requests for an on-camera interview, and instead sent us a written statement:

"We were shocked to learn today that a significant number of student applications apparently have been removed from the college and provided to Channel 27...It is unacceptable to us that this breach occurred. We already have taken steps to improve our systems and will continue to take all necessary measures to ensure our student's privacy is protected."

MATC says those steps include a lock which is now on the dumpster. They also say the compactor is now activated regularly -- as soon as trash is placed in it.

Wisconsin does have a law to protect consumers. It's called the "Dumpster Diving Law" -- created after a 27 News investigation back in 1999. The law requires financial, medical, and tax preparation institutions to shred personal and sensitive documents. The law does not apply to educational institutions, like MATC.

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