Southeast boosts ID security for students

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Aware students' personally identifiable information had been available to a wide range of staff, Southeast Missouri State University has taken steps to protect students' identities.

No longer do front desk staff at dormitories have access to a list of student names and Social Security numbers. Students use a university-issued ID number rather than their Social Security number to eat in dining halls, rent textbooks or use the library. Beginning this month, only the last four digits of students' Social Security numbers are shown in a database accessible by the central office staff of Residence Life.

This is a change from previous years, when former Dearmont Hall director William Elum allegedly downloaded 800 student names and Social Security numbers to a laptop. He left the university in June 2007, but the downloading was not detected until April of this year. He was recently indicted on two charges of identity fraud and one charge of computer trespass.

Last week, students were mailed notices of the potential for identity theft.

Until just recently, the illegal possession of personably identifiable data was much easier to accomplish secretly. At one time, student names, Social Security numbers and university ID numbers were available in a binder at the front desk of all dorms. Resident assistants or front desk staff used the information to verify students' identity and issue keys when a student was locked out.

Resident assistants said it would have been easy to copy the information without anyone knowing.

Bruce Skinner, director of residence life, said Social Security information is no longer available to front desk staff and that the information has been shredded. "When we made the transition from Socials to student ID numbers last year, there was a transition for the first couple of months in the fall" where both were listed, Skinner said. "That is no longer the case."

Shana Gemoules, a former resident assistant, said she was "disturbed" her number and others' had been accessible. "It's scary with as much identity theft that goes on. As a college student, I wouldn't want to deal with the stress of hey, someone opened a credit card in my name," she said.

No students have reported credit fraud as a result of Elum's actions, but many students are just now checking credit reports or placing security freezes on their accounts. Elum was arrested in Georgia about a month ago.

"About the best advice I could offer is at least once a year, do a credit check on yourself just to see. There may be someone out there establishing credit in your name and you may not even know about it," said Lt. Jerry Bledsoe of the Scott County Sheriff's Department. He is trained in computer forensics.

With just a name and Social Security number, there are an "unlimited number of things" a person could do, Bledsoe said, including trying to set up a new credit card or loan. A person could also use a Social Security number to try to gain other personally identifiable information, he said.

Computer security expert Shawn Asmus said names and Social Security numbers can be sold on the underground market for between 50 cents and $3 a piece. Asmus is the chief information security officer with Technology and Networking/ASC, a Cape Girardeau company that helps manage IT services and security. Like university administrators, he recommends affected students place a fraud alert and security freeze on their accounts.

Student Megan Grisolano was one of the 800 students who received a letter notifying her she may want to take precautions to protect her identity. "I couldn't believe it. I thought info like that would have been protected," she said.

lbavolek@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 123

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