ID numbers put students at risk

Joe Lord

She struggled to drop the postcard in the mailbox.

Like thousands of students on the Hill, Marion sophomore Susan Towery found herself confirming her housing request this summer by mail. But she wasn’t worried about where she was going to be living.

“It’s a postcard,” Towery said. “It’s not like the inside of a letter. It has your name, social security number and address on it.”

Towery was opening herself up to a security risk students here face every day, whether they know it or not — she was showing her social security number to people she didn’t know.

Western uses social security information as its student identification number, a practice that has stretched more than three decades.

Starting this month, students may unwittingly open themselves up to further social security risks.

A recent deal between the university and Domino’s Pizza will allow purchases from the company to be paid with Big Red and meal plan dollars. Students will have to share their student ID numbers — usually their social security numbers — over the telephone to pay for their pie.

Auxiliary Services Director Rob Chrisler said there isn’t a security risk for students ordering from Domino’s because the pizza company’s contract doesn’t allow them to misuse the information.

But using social security numbers to identify students, whether in pizza transactions or on academic transcripts, is a practice in question, especially as identity theft has become more visible nationally.

Jay Foley, director of consumer and victim services for the Identity Theft Resource Center in San Diego, said college campuses are particularly vulnerable for identity theft.

“Any place where you put your social security number you’re eligible to become a victim,” Foley said, adding that he advises colleges to use a different identification system.

Campus police Capt. Eugene Hoofer said he isn’t aware of any student identity theft cases at Western, but student social security numbers appear on transcripts and other university records. Many faculty require students to jot their social security numbers on tests.

Richard Kirchmeyer, vice president for Information Technology, said offices of Admissions, HumanResources and the ID Center all use social security numbers in their work.

The damage

Criminals combine a person’s unique social security number with other personal information, such as a home address, to assume their prey’s identity, Foley said.

Victims of identity theft can be left with thousands of dollars in debt and an ugly smear on their credit reports, Foley said. Such invasions of privacy are a hassle to clean up, and virtually all of them involve misuse of social security numbers.

Campus police Sgt. Jody Burton understands identity theft.

Two summers ago, Burton found himself $20,000 in debt after someone used his social security number and other personal information to open billing accounts at 10 retailers in Louisville.

It took Burton a year to clear his credit report.

“I mean, it’s a headache,” he said. “I had to write and have letters notarized to every company.” Burton doesn’t know how the thief got his personal information.

What Western is doing

Western began using social security numbers for student identification in 1968, Registrar Freida Eggleton said. Before then, students were assigned personal identification numbers.

Using social security numbers was convenient because it was unique to each person, she said. Students with the same name were less likely to be confused once Western started using social security numbers.

The openness of social security numbers on the Hill has not gone unnoticed by some university officials.

A 14-member ad hoc committee met in August to consider switching to computer-generated student identification numbers used by departments at Western, Kirchmeyer said.

It would be nearly impossible for someone to use a computer-generated number for identity theft, he said. But the committee has just began its look into the issue.

Kirchmeyer said the switch would be an enormous task — perhaps as big as when the university moved to the Banner 2000 computer system two years ago.

“It’s going to be similar to that,” he said. “It’s going to be a huge undertaking.”

Social security numbers would still need to be collected because some departments, such as Financial Aid, need such information to complete transactions, said Eggleton, a member of the committee.

While social security numbers would be kept by Western, the information would not be as easily accessible as it is today, Kirchmeyer said.

The move would still have its drawbacks.

“You’re going to have to remember a new number,” Kirchmeyer said. “I mean, everybody knows their social security number.”

Remembering a new number wouldn’t be a problem for Towery, who said a switch away from social security numbers would be a good step to protect the privacy of students.

“It’s not that hard to memorize a new number,” she said.

Using a different system could also complicate student transfers. Most universities use social security numbers to identify students, Eggleton said.

Social security numbers were printed on student ID cards until two years ago, Chrisler said.

He said any students who still has their social security number on their student ID can exchange it for a new card that doesn’t have the number on it.

What other universities are doing

Most public universities in Kentucky use social security information for student identification, said Bill Swinford, senior associate for the Council on Postsecondary Education.

Swinford said the format for identifying students is left up to the university.

The University of Louisville is one exception.

Each prospective student at U of L is assigned a seven-digit identification number, said Nancy Bodner, associate director for records and registration at Louisville.

Louisville switched to the alternate numbers in 2000 when they switched their computer database to PeopleSoft, she said. Their students were receptive to the change, although some students often confuse their identification number.

“We haven’t had any problems with it,” she said.

Bodner said social security numbers are still stored in computer records, but “it’s not everywhere.”

Many private colleges in Kentucky have also moved away from using social security numbers.

Julie Anderson, assistant registrar at Transylvania University in Lexington, said her school hasn’t used social security numbers for student identification in a decade.

Anderson has also worked at Georgetown, Centre and Midway colleges, she said. All are private schools that do not use social security numbers for student identification.

For now

Western requires school officials with access to social security numbers to sign waivers promising to keep the information private and use it only when needed, Eggleton said.

And Chrisler said Domino’s has provided a bond and insurance policy to make sure student information is not misused.

Regardless, Foley said most students should be aware of the risks and consequences of readily available social security numbers.

“You get to fight off all the creditors,” he said. “That’s always a good thing for young people to have to do.”

Reach Joseph Lord at [email protected]