Computer theft places student identities at risk

April 24, 2006

Andy Mullen

A computer theft from an academic building at the University has compromised valuable student information including names, grades and student identification numbers, according to an e-mail sent by Provost Gene Block to hundreds of potentially affected students.

The theft occurred from an academic building in early April and contained information about students who took classes in that building in the fall 2005 semester, Assoc. Engineering Dean Paxton Marshall said.

"There were two different thefts and several computers that were stolen around Spring Break," Marshall said.

The general sentiment of administrators is that because the incident was a hardware theft, the thief most likely does not intend to use the information on the computers, which includes some students' Social Security numbers.

"The thief was probably just looking to sell the actual computers," Marshall said.

The affected students were made aware of the theft and potential repercussions via an e-mail sent Friday.

The e-mail provided information about how students can avoid instances of identity theft, including credit card fraud, by closely monitoring any accounts in their names.

"Improper credit card use could be the most likely abuse of this information," Marshall said.

Second-year Engineering student Ashley Lanier said that she received an e-mail and was only slightly concerned because the large number of students in class may make it difficult for the thief to identify all the students.

Because of the general concern about the frequent use of Social Security numbers which culminated in a student referendum, the University is taking precautions to limit their availability to the public.

"The University is aware that using Social Security numbers as IDs is something we need to try to stop and we are working on ways to affect change immediately," Marshall said.

The University, in conjunction with the Information Technology and Communication office, is working to limit the use of ID numbers to the last four digits, Webb said.

In the long run, the University is looking to completely eliminate the use of Social Security numbers, Webb said.

When the new student system is online in about three years, the University will cease to use Social Security numbers, Webb added.

Identity theft from stolen Social Security numbers is a relatively recent problem resulting from the advent of information available over the Internet.

Using Social Security numbers was once the standard--they were even included on personal checks--and the University is trying to cope with the new increased risk, Webb said.

No incidents of identity theft have yet been reported by the students in the class.

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