Stolen computer puts employees’ personal information at risk

June 30, 2006

Kate Ward, Northwest Arkansas Times

Computer thefts are putting millions at risk for identity theft.

“Computer thefts are increasing, not just in Fayetteville but nationwide, ” said Detective Mike Parks, a computer analyst for the Fayetteville Police Department. “ Because we’re a society driven by technology, we can expect to see crimes committed by or against computers to increase. ”

The problem hit close to home in April, when a laptop was stolen from the Human Resources Division of Washington Regional Medical Center in Fayetteville.

“ There was a report of a stolen computer on the 14 th (of April ), ” said Sgt. Shan- non Gabbard of the Fayetteville Police Department. “ It was stolen from a docking station of the HR division. The person was away from his desk for 45 minutes and when he returned, it was gone. ”

According to hospital spokesman Terry Fox, the theft could have affected nearly 5, 000 current and past employees.

“ We notified all employees and gave them all the numbers nationally to call about how they could check their credit information, ” she said. “ We sent out a letter in April to make them aware of what had happened. ”

Although no suspects have been identified, Fox said officials have seen no evidence of employees’ personal information being accessed.

“ They may not even know what they have, ” she said. “ They could have just taken it for the computer equipment. ”

Earlier this year, an instance of computer theft affecting millions of veterans gained national attention. In early May, a laptop was stolen in a routine burglary from a Department of Veterans Affairs employee who had taken the computer home to work. The computer included identifying information for 26. 5 million veterans and active-duty National Guard and reserve members.

The laptop was recovered nearly a month later, after being turned over to the FBI by an anonymous person. A forensic examination conducted by the FBI found no evidence that anyone had accessed Social Security numbers or other data on the equipment.

Parks offered the following tips for people to safeguard their computer data:

• Limit the amount of personal information stored on your personal computer.

• Files containing personal information should be encrypted and password protected.

• Encryption software is available at most retail stores that sell computer software.

• Make sure computers connected to the Internet are protected with physical or software firewalls.

• Use passwords to protect all accounts on your personal computer.

“ The computer hard drive should be ‘ wiped’ clean of all data and the operating system e-installed before it is sold, traded or donated, ” Parks said. “ Most computer repair personnel can perform this task for you. ”

Parks said “ phishing” scams account for a majority of personal data falling into the hands of criminals.

“ These scams use e-mails and counterfeit Web pages to trick the victim into providing personal data, ” he said. “ The emails explain to the victim their financial account information has been compromised and there is a need for them to verify their personal information. ”

When the victim follows the link provided by the thief, Parks said, they are redirected to a counterfeit Web site. When they fill in the information, he said, it is sent to the thief, who immediately begins using the harvested information.

Parks said a reputable company will never ask for personal or financial account information.

“ Never provide this information online unless you are using a secure Web site, and never provide this information as a response to an unsolicited email, ” he said.

If a personal computer is stolen, Park said, victims should immediately notify police and complete a theft report.

“ If the computer is a company computer, you should immediately notify your employer of the theft as well as completing a police report, ” he said. “ If the computer is known to contain personal data, you should immediately notify your creditors and ask for a credit alert to be placed on your credit accounts. This can be done by the major credit reporting bureaus. ”

Although recovery of stolen computers depends on a number of factors, including the information provided in the police report, Parks said police have a much better chance of recovering stolen property if they have serial and model numbers for the property. In some cases, he said, other owner-applied numbers or markings may help identify stolen property.

“ Unfortunately, most theft victims never recorded the serial numbers from the property before it was stolen, ” he said. “ In some cases, the registered owner of a computer can be traced through registered software on the computer. ”

“ It is a good idea to complete the registration process for all software on the computer. If a computer is found, the true owner can be identified through the software. ”

According to Parks, the Fayetteville Police Department is one of just a few police departments in Northwest Arkansas with forensic computer examiners who can examine computers for this type of information.

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