New Web site enlisted to combat identity theft on campus
Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy graduate student Peter Schulleri chuckles a bit now when he recalls how he and others involved in a class project went through a dumpster to find personal items that would reveal the identity of students.
The reason for the group's unusual behavior is no laughing matter, however, Schulleri is quick to point out as he explains that the dumpster diving was part of a very serious project focusing on the growing problem of identity theft.
"We were trying to send a message to students," Schulleri says. The group was successful in finding two fairly revealing pieces of identification, he says, even though their search was not very comprehensive.
What began as a class assignment now has resulted in the debut of a Web site that offers students and others tips on safeguarding personal information, and suggestions for what to do if they fall victim to identity theft, says Elizabeth Sweet, director of the Information Technology User Advocate Office.
The site, "Protecting Against Identity Misrepresentation and Theft" (http://identityweb.umich.edu), pulls together resources from on and off campus. It offers suggestions for safe behavior, such as:
• log out of the computer when it is not being used;
• don't give out personal information on the phone or Internet unless you have initiated the contact;
• don't carry all credit or bank cards around in a purse or wallet;
• shred waste that contains personal information;
• be familiar with the ways thieves get information, usually from mailboxes, car glove boxes, the trash, the Internet, the telephone, or from wallets and purses that are either missing or simply out of the owner's sight for a time.
Identity theft is a crime on the riseclaiming 9.9 million victims and costing businesses, financial institutions and individuals nearly $53 billion in 2003, the most recent year for which statistics are available from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). During a five-year period the FTC says the number of Americans victimized by this form of fraud totaled 27.3 million.
"It's growing at a fever pitch, so getting the message out is the right thing, Schulleri says.
The idea for the Web site emerged after Sweet attended the class, "Information Technology, Emerging Law, and Applied Policy," taught by Virginia Rezmierski, adjunct associate professor at the Ford School and adjunct associate professor at the School of Information.
"The students contacted me because they knew I handled complaints about online phishing," Sweet says. Phishing is the practice of sending what looks like a valid e-mail from a familiar source to a user in an attempt to scam him into giving out private information. The e-mail directs the user to what looks like a legitimate Web site. There he is asked to update personal information, such as passwords or social security, credit card and bank account numbersinformation that can be used to steal the person's identity.
After the presentation, Sweet got together with Judith Dean, marketing project leader for Information Technology Central Services (ITCS), and they pulled others into a conversation about how to leverage the work of the students into something that would help address the problem.
Representatives from the User Advocate Office, ITCS, Housing, the Department of Public Safety, the Office of Student Conflict Resolution, the Vice President for Communications, the International Center and the School of Information came together to discuss the problem and to determine the best communication vehicle and messages to bring the concern to the campus community, Sweet says.