Identity Theft

This College Just Exposed Social Security Numbers, Data of 163,000 People

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A private university in Indianapolis is dealing with a massive data breach, raising questions about the necessity of storing people’s personal information years after it is no longer needed. A hacker acquired data, including Social Security numbers, of about 163,000 students, alumni, faculty, staff and applicants of Butler University, a university spokesman confirmed June 30.

The university first learned of the issue in May, when California law enforcement contacted the university, saying it had an identity thief in custody who had a flash drive containing personal information of a few dozen employees. Some of those individuals experienced unauthorized use of their data, and the university started investigating the breach.

The investigation concluded that about 163,000 people with ties (some with very loose ties) to Butler had their information exposed to hackers between about November 2013 and May 2014. The vulnerability exposed records dating back to 1983 and has since been fixed, said Michael Kaltenmark, Butler’s director of external relations.

Not everyone who has shared their personal information with the university in the last 31 years is a victim, Kaltenmark said, but that’s still a high number of records, considering the size of the school: In 2013, the university had an enrollment of 4,902 (undergraduate and graduate), 1,138 faculty and staff and an alumni network of more than 44,000. A man who applied to Butler in 2002 posted to Twitter he had received an email warning him of identity theft: “Is this a scam?” he wrote.

It wasn’t, the university’s Twitter account responded. Those affected by the breach have been sent letters informing them of the issue and offering a year of free credit monitoring.

Of course, for someone who applied to Butler a few decades ago, it’s unlikely the contact information on his or her application is the same as it is now, but that doesn’t mean they’re safe. Even those who haven’t received letters should check their credit reports for signs of fraudulent activity — such as credit accounts they don’t recognize, or collections accounts for debts they did not incur.

Butler is reviewing its document storage and retention policy, and other institutions would be wise to do the same. It can be extremely difficult to prevent cyberattacks, but limiting exposure of sensitive information in the first place can make a huge difference to potential victims, because identity theft takes time to recover from and can damage victims’ credit standing.

“We want to take every step we can to reassure people that we have their best interest in mind,” Kaltenmark said. “This is certainly an unfortunate circumstance. … It’s also an opportunity for us to improve the security of our network.”

Free credit monitoring is a standard response to data breaches these days, but consumers should keep in mind that the threat of identity theft doesn’t expire in a year. Even those who haven’t received notice of a data breach should check their credit reports for any errors or extraneous accounts (here’s how consumers can get free access to their credit reports annually from each of the three major credit reporting agencies). Checking your credit scores regularly also serves as an identity theft monitor, because a sudden, unexpected change in your score may indicate fraud. Using free tools like those available through Credit.com, you can check your credit scores every month.

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