Poly heist risks identity thefts

August 1, 2006

By Sally Connell


Cal Poly has notified 3,020 current and former students that their names and Social Security numbers were on a laptop computer stolen earlier this month from a physics professor's San Luis Obispo home.

Cal Poly used names and Social Security numbers on class lists before 2004, according to Vicki Stover, campus information security officer.

The informational letter, which Cal Poly is required under state law to distribute to those affected, went to students who took the physics and astronomy lectures taught by physics professor John Mottman from 1994 to 2004.

Cal Poly is trying to change its practice of using Social Security numbers as the main identifier for students, something that was once common in the halls of higher education.

"We are coming up with a new identifier for new students," she said, adding that the campus is also working on giving older students a new student identification number.

Experts in the field say that while there are many such identity theft exposure cases reported in the press, each one is important when Social Security numbers and names are obtained.

"They've got the keys to the kingdom," said Jay Foley, executive director of the San Diego-based Identity Theft Resource Center. "They have the starting point for all of your credit."

Foley said students are particularly bad at monitoring their credit, and he has seen cases where students face huge debt, incurred by others, because they failed to keep track of it.

Foley said Poly's recommendation, that affected students put fraud alerts on their credit report with one of the large credit reporting agencies, is a good one.

The case involving Mottman's laptop is the largest of recent cases involving student records that were exposed because of thefts or computer errors. Others include:

- In February, 19 animal science students were informed of their risk after professor Debbie Beckett had grade books stolen from a car in Atascadero.

- In December, a file was accidentally posted with detailed information about 196 students who had attended a 2001 computer science class taught by professor Lewis Hitchner.

- In May 2005, incidents involving 77 physics students and 411 aerospace engineering students were reported. One involved a flash computer disk theft, the other an information-filled e-mail which went astray.

The largest Cal Poly-related identity theft exposure reported in recent years originated off-campus in August 2004 when a California State University auditor lost track of a hard drive containing information on multiple campuses in the 23-campus system.

That contained information on 13,500 students and staff from Cal Poly. The disk has not been found.

main page ATTRITION feedback