Sensitive school data winds up in hands of Nigerian ID thieves

Schools that neglect to thoroughly erase their hard drives before handing old PCs over to recyling companies are shocked to discover student records are falling into hands of Nigerian scammers.

Everyone who's ever bought a computer knows that they have a shelf life of just a few years before they need upgrading. This means that a huge number of computers are thrown out or recycled every year, and many of them are from schools. The St. Louis Post Dispatch has learned that some of them end up in Nigeria, the cyber-crime capital of the world, with personal information still retrievable on the hard disk.

During its investigation, The Post-Dispatch bought several old American computers that had been exported to Nigeria from American schools. The Post-Dispatch had computer experts in the United States later analyze their contents.

What they found was that the computers had school records, private messages, photographs, and financial information still on the hard drives. "We were appalled," said Polly McAllister, a reading teacher in Virginia's Fairfax County. She was one of about 30 current or former teachers and staff members at Fairhill Elementary School whose Social Security numbers were listed on a hard drive for sale in a computer market in Lagos.

"When we heard about this, I said, 'This can't be.' It's a very scary thing," said McAllister, 63. "I had never given a thought to anything like this happening. Who knew all this stuff was going to Nigeria?"

Information not adequately erased from hard drives is fodder for identity thieves. Computer dealers watch for non-erased hard drives, testing them on computers powered by portable generators. Lagos, Nigeria's capital, receives 500 or more shipping containers full of electronics every month.

"They look especially for your transactions and money records. They try to find names of your relatives, friends and your relationships to help them with their fraud," said one Nigerian computer experts who frequents the used electronics markets.

School districts across the country are doing a lousy job when it comes to protecting personal data. For example, Anaheim, CA schools gave hundreds of computers to the Liquidation Company, an auction house in Fontana, Calif., without bothering to remove data. The Liquidation Company knew the computers ended up in Nigeria. The school district has recently terminated its contract with this company.

"We don't want anything like this to happen again," said Terry Harper, purchasing agent for the district.

Anaheim school officials have taken steps to make sure that hard drives are completely erases before recycling, and said they may hire a company to shred old hard drives.