Laptop computer theft rising on campus

The University Police Department has issued a campus-wide alert advising students and faculty to be aware of the recent rise in computer theft, particularly mobile and laptop computers. In a press release from UPD, Lt. Ron Swartz said that laptop computers left unattended, even for minutes at a time, are vulnerable to theft in areas where unsupervised people have access.

“We’ve noticed that it’s been prevalent in the last couple of weeks,” Swartz said. Nearly every day someone is calling with a similar type of theft, specifically laptops and personal notebook computers.”

Despite signs warning people of theft and not to leave valuable property unattended, the Consortium Library has been an area targeted by thieves.

Swartz said that in many people’s minds, leaving a laptop for a minute might not seem like a big deal. But a minute is more than enough time for a thief.

“The last one that I personally investigated, the thief just unplugged the power wire and mouse and walked away with the laptop,” he said. “It doesn’t take more than five seconds.”

Consortium Library staff has said that parts of the library do have cameras, but at this time they haven’t yet investigated the logistics of adding more security.

Consortium Library circulation manager Robin Hanson said she has two sons in college, and the first accessory she purchased for their laptop computers were cable locks.

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“You can get them at any computer store. They attach to the computer and you can throw them around the leg of a table. They are just enough to deter (a thief),” Hanson said.

“The library should be regarded as no more a safe place than you would regard a bus station. People have such benign feelings about libraries and they shouldn’t,” Hanson said. “They should be aware of where they are sitting, they should be aware of who’s around them and guard their things and themselves.” A People Mover bus stop is located on UAA Drive several yards from the Consortium Library.

Another area targeted by thieves are staff office suites.

“Quite often, people who work in an office share space assume someone else is going to be around,” Swartz said. “People can walk in just about anywhere and look like they are at home because this is a public facility. I think you could walk into any academic public building and find a suite unattended.”

On the morning of Feb. 14, after locking her door the night before, Janet Steinhauser, a College of Education faculty member, returned the next morning to discover the Macintosh laptop provided to her by UAA had been stolen in a matter of hours while she was away. UPD confirmed that she had in fact locked the door but that someone was able to surpass the locks. Steinhauser said she suspects that there may have been multiple keys to the door. UPD is investigating the crime, and Steinhauser has since had the locks changed on her office door. Steinhauser said she learned a hard lesson about backing up her work.

“I had backed up in August, but I am working on a doctorate. It wasn’t my thesis, but it was a major paper that I was writing for my class. It was a 14-page paper that I had just written that past weekend,” Steinhauser said. “It was gone.”

“I learned that if I was going to value my work, I needed to get strategic about having copies in multiple places,” she said.

Backing up homework can be as simple as e-mailing work to yourself or saving it to a USB memory drive.

“If you back up every day, you’re probably reasonably safe,” said David Meyers, a professor of computer science. “Your whole university career could probably fit on one of those if you wanted.”

Richard Whitney, vice chancellor of Information Technology Services, said that information saved to USB memory drives can also be encrypted, which prevents information to be taken off of them without a password if they should fall into the wrong hands.

“The bottom line is, you have to have backups,” Whitney said.

While losing your homework or a pricey computer can be upsetting, perhaps an even grater threat to consider is the possibility of identity theft.

Meyers said the single easiest thing a person can do to prevent identity theft from a stolen laptop is to enable passwords and use them.

While passwords will not stop a more technically inclined thief, they’re often enough to stop most people from accessing important information.

Whitney said he thinks that the best way to protect private information is to use products that effectively create a vault environment. Programs like these will encrypt information on your computer, making them impossible to access without the proper password. Whitney said that while precautions like these work well, there is no substitute for physical security.

If your computer is stolen, there are ways to get it back.

In order to help return stolen property, UPD needs to have identifiers such as serial numbers that link owners to the stolen items. Lt. Ron Swartz said he suggests engraving identifiers or placing unique stickers on laptops in noticeable areas. Doing this could even be a deterrent for would-be thieves.

“This is how they identify them if they show up in pawn shops,” Swartz said. “We have had situations where we pull over a car full of electronic equipment and we can’t get it back to owners without that kind of information.”

If UPD is given the serial number of a stolen item, they can upload it to the statewide police information registry, which is used to cross-reference information from recovered stolen items. However, pawnshops are not likely where stolen computers are ending up.

Eugene Kaplanis, who works at Tudor Pawn, said that they don’t take a lot of computers because they go down in value so fast.

“We usually see one a week, but we rarely take them in; we take maybe one a year,” he said.

There is a way to track where a laptop computer is logging online by looking for the media access control address.

“Every computer device that connects to a network has to have a hardware address. The hardware address is called the MAC address,” Whitney said. “If you have a laptop with a wireless network capability, that interface has a MAC address. The MAC address is kind of imbedded in the laptop itself.”

Whitney said that UAA could collect all the MAC addresses from the students who wanted to register their laptops. In the event that they were stolen and then reconnected to the campus network, IT Services could find them.

One company called LoJack offers an online service that tracks the MAC addresses of laptop computers. According to LoJack’s Web site, software installed on your computer works to contact their monitoring center and, if stolen, reports the laptop’s location using any Internet connection.

LoJack then tracks the stolen computer’s location and partners with local law enforcement to recover the computer. LoJack claims that if your stolen computer is not recovered within 30 days, you will receive a refund for the purchase price of the software, which is $49 per year.

Whitney said that people who want to find the MAC address on their computer can call UAA’s IT call center.

The important thing about computer security is to find something that works for the way that people use their computers.

“Some people don’t operate in a highly structured manner with regard to their computers, and to force them to adopt structure when they don’t have it is tough,” said Whitney.