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Protect your computer -- and your identity -- on campus

Every 12 seconds, a laptop is stolen. Guard yours

By LaRita Heet

Attention college-bound students! Every 12 seconds, somewhere in the world, a laptop is stolen -- and students heading to college need to take some simple precautions to protect not only their computers, but all the sensitive information stored on them.

Protecting your computer and credit cardDon't think you've used your credit card (or your parent's) or Social Security number on your laptop? Think again. Did you fill out your college application, essay, or financial application on your computer? What about your iTunes account or online banking account? All of that data is stored somewhere within your system. Just deleting information from your Recycle Bin isn't enough -- computer thieves are experts at undeleting such files. (See 10 ways to protect your computer and personal information.)

College campuses are prime territory for thieves. The FBI projects that approximately 2.6 million laptops will be stolen in 2008. Experts say that a significant number of these thefts will probably occur on college campuses. "I think the reason why a college is an attractive place for laptop theft is there's probably more laptops there than in any other similar geographic area, and you have students that are of an age that they don't think bad things can happen to them," says Guy Antinozzi, co-author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Campus Safety" (along with Alan Axelrod) and former director of public safety at Atlanta-based Oglethorpe University.

"Over 236 million data records have been exposed due to security breaches over the last three years, and schools are constantly losing laptops, and even more so, it's happening at the consumer level," says Todd Feinman, CEO of Identity Finder, a software designed to foil computer security breaches by digitally shredding a computer owner's personal information, including Social Security numbers, credit card account numbers and other data, from his computer.

Busting the myths

The two biggest myths people, especially students, tell themselves about their chance of having their laptops -- and their personal information -- stolen are: 

  • "It's not going to happen to me." Though everyone assumes it will happen to someone else, this is a dangerous assumption. Instead, says Yost, "Assume it's going to be stolen. If you do that, then you're going to do things from common sense: You're going to lock your doors, you're going to keep your eye on your laptop, you're not going to walk away from it." 
  • "I don't really have anything that a thief would want." Think you have nothing of value on your laptop, outside of some MP3s and e-mail? "Au contraire," says Yost. "If I get your laptop, it's a treasure trove of information about you that I can use as a gateway to identity theft. Trust me, there's a lot more about you on your laptop than you realize." Odds are that your credit card numbers -- or those of your parents -- plus your bank account information, and other personal data are right there for the taking. A Social Security number alone would be enough for a thief to open multiple fraudulent credit card accounts in your name, and create multiple new identities.

Welcome to the real world
"A lot of students grew up not really being used to the fact that they have to keep their laptops protected. They're used to growing up in neighborhoods and leaving their laptops around, but when you get to school, these are open places where someone could just come on campus. These aren't gated communities, so it's really important that people don't just leave their computers in the library or the coffee shop. That's one of the biggest things we've seen is students losing laptops because they have a lot of trust in the people around them. They don't realize that, yeah, you can trust your friends, but someone else could just walk on campus and steal it," says Feinman.

College is also a perfect time to start protecting your computer and personal information, says Feinman. "School prepares you for entering the business world and entering the next phase of your life. So it's really important to get into the habit of doing these things early on. Everyone taught us growing up, 'Look both ways before crossing the street,' but no one ever says to you, 'Shred personal information from your computer.' "  

Awareness is key
Before you triple-lock and install security cameras in your dorm room, rest assured that protecting your laptop, and its confidential information, is easier than it sounds.

Antinozzi, an expert who specializes in threat assessment and security in higher education and campuses, says protecting your laptop on a college campus begins with common sense. "Maintain the physical integrity of your laptop -- keep it close, don't lend it to anybody. We don't pay enough attention to that," he says.

Christine Constant, whose 21-year-old daughter, Rachel, is a senior at St. Louis University, says her daughter has never had her laptop stolen, probably because she keeps track of it at all times. "When she's traveling, she takes it with her. When it's not with her, she keeps it locked inside her off-campus apartment. She always knows where it is," says Constant.

This level of constant awareness is key in protecting your computer and its veritable goldmine of personal information, says Dan Yost, president and chief technology officer of Tri-8 Inc., which is the parent company of MyLaptopGPS.com, a computer security system created to help prevent laptop theft and to minimize security breaches. 

See related: 10 ways to protect your computer and personal information, Identity theft techniques and protection tips 

Published: August 25, 2008


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