Several USF students have fallen victim to identity theft and harassment through Facebook.com, and now Public Safety and ITS are conducting an in-depth investigation. The University is stressing the importance of protecting private information on the Internet.
Facebook.com is one of the many popular networking directories that allows college students and faculty to connect online. It is widely considered one of the safer networking websites, in that it is more privatized and exclusively for students and faculty with official college and university email accounts. However, just like everything else on the Internet, one can never be sure who is reading, creating or receiving information.
In the first weekend of March, when junior psychology major Paloma Lopez noticed something was different about her profile on Facebook.com, she dug deeper to find out that someone had stolen her identity on the website and written threatening and harassing messages under her name. It did not take her long to realize that she was not alone.
In fact, as of April 13, nine other USF students’ identities had also been stolen, apparently by the same person, due to the nature and similarity of the messages being sent and posted on other peoples’ profile pages. Soon, the victims of identity theft all started referring to the culprit, somewhat jokingly, as the “Facebook Hacker.” They simply hoped that the harassment would stop.
Two weeks ago this reporter brought the incidents to the attention of USF administration, ITS and Public Safety and these offices have taken the identity theft more seriously. Officer Young from Public Safety, along with Gilbert Lee and Ken Yoshioka of ITS have begun an in-depth investigation of the case, calling it a violation of several of USF’s privacy codes, behavioral codes (for the harassment), and identity theft, emphasizing that because the suspect did not actually infiltrate any of the school’s computer system.
Lopez thinks that the identity thief accessed her Facebook.com password through her USFConnect e-mail account. “Because the default password they give [students] is our birthday, they were able to figure mine out. I didn’t ever change mine, so it was easy for them to access my USFConnect account. And that’s pretty scary considering the fact that they then have access to my personal emails, my FAFSA information that has my Social Security Number and my Facebook password.” Apparently, that was the case for all ten of the people whose accounts were tampered with.
Since the administration was alerted to the Facebook identity thefts, ITS has posted a notice on the USF Connect page urging anyone with a usfca.edu email account to change the password.
Bradley Thathiah, a junior graphic design major and fellow victim of identity theft agrees. “It’s too bad someone has enough time on their hands to try to make other people’s lives miserable without having confront them face to face.no pun intended.”
Although many of the students are able to look at the situation as simply ridiculous, some, including those at Public Safety, ITS and USF administration are seeing it as a serious and highly punishable offense. They hope that these incidents will raise awareness about how to protect one’s identity on the Internet. According to assistants and engineers at ITS, this kind of identity theft is possible to trace, and easy to prevent. Simply using obscure and what they refer to as “strong” passwords-a mix of characters-and monitoring one’s public content on the Internet can help protect one’s identity online. Officers at Public Safety want to assure students that they are on the case and taking it seriously. Online harassment may not necessarily be punishable by state or federal law, but it is at USF. And identity theft is illegal under any circumstance or jurisdiction.
Ryan Garcia, coordinator of judicial affairs at USF said that USF is doing everything in its power to investigate the case and find out who the identity thief is. He said serious measures will be taken- possibly including expulsion-as soon as they identify the culprit. In the meantime, he said that the information on these popular online social networks such as Facebook. com or MySpace.com, is being used to investigate similar cases in colleges and high schools. He said police are also using these sites to investigate criminal cases and many businesses use it to look people up before they hire them. Garcia said while keeping passwords secret to protect one’s identity is one step, playing it smart and being careful about what one reveals about oneself on the Internet is just as important.