Stolen ChildNet Laptop puts 12,000 at risk of ID theft

April 12, 2007

Brian Haas and Bill Hirschman,0,5437573.story?coll=sfla-home-headlines

FORT LAUDERDALE -- A laptop computer containing personal information on 12,000 ChildNet applicants has been stolen from the agency, the latest in a string of recent thefts at the nonprofit that runs Broward County's child welfare programs.

Police on Wednesday named a former ChildNet assistant facility manager with a lengthy criminal record as a suspect in the computer theft at the North Broward Regional Service Center at 1400 W. Commercial Blvd., although no one has been charged.

Sgt. Randy Pelham, head of the Fort Lauderdale Police Department's economic crimes unit, said detectives were still trying to recover the laptop, which was discovered missing Friday. He said the information on the computer is detailed enough to allow a criminal to take out car loans, lines of credit or even home mortgages, he said.

"This is the jackpot of identity thefts," Pelham said. "This is every identity thief's dream."

Peter Balitsaris, president and CEO of ChildNet, acknowledged at a Wednesday afternoon press conference that the laptop contains financial and credit data, Social Security numbers, driver's license data and passport numbers for ChildNet program applicants. He said the computer doesn't have information about foster children and cannot be accessed without a password. He also said that there are no known full backups of the computer's hard drive, though his staff can work from paper copies of the information.

ChildNet employees discovered the theft of the Dell laptop Friday morning. Police said there were no signs of forced entry in any of the thefts.

Balitsaris said none of the 12,000 Broward residents affected had been notified of the theft as of Wednesday because ChildNet hadn't had time to mail letters out. Most of the residents were applying to be foster or adoptive parentsThe agency and the Florida Department of Children and Families have sparred over accountability issues almost since ChildNet's inception. In winter 2006, that dispute nearly led to the state severing its contract with ChildNet.

Jack Moss, administrator for DCF's 10th District, said the state must not only protect children, but also "the assets of the agency."

Balitsaris said ChildNet has already corrected several problems. He said the agency's computer system will be backed up regularly and the laptop's contents will be deleted daily, the agency will hire a security consultant and at least 25 of the agency's first hires will have their criminal backgrounds re-examined.

"I don't think a week has gone by that we haven't made an improvement in the system," Balitsaris said. "But some days, bad things happen."

Police have named a 35-year-old Fort Lauderdale man who was employed as an assistant facility manager by ChildNet until Wednesday as a suspect in the laptop theft. They also said the man and his former ChildNet boss, a 47-year-old Coral Springs man who also had a criminal record, were suspects in the recent thefts of gift cards from the agency.

The agency fired both men Wednesday.

The police investigation began Sept. 20, after the theft of $2,700 in Wal-Mart gift cards that the agency gives to new foster parents, according to police reports. Another theft, which was discovered on Feb. 13, resulted in the loss of another $2,700 in Wal-Mart gift cards and $5,500 in Brandsmart gift cards from a locked combination safe.

Staff Researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this report.

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