4,600 may face ID theft in laptop case

Staff WriterFebruary 8, 2008 

  • Wake County is looking for a Panasonic Toughbook CF-29 laptop. It has a Wake County identification sticker marked "DP 16096." For information about the laptop, call Jeff Hammerstein with Wake EMS at 625-3260.

    Wake County officials plan to set up a hot line and will contact patients and EMS workers whose data were stored on the laptop.

— More than 3,500 firefighters, paramedics and other Wake County emergency workers and 1,100 patients transported by county ambulances had their names and Social Security numbers recorded in a laptop that has been reported stolen.

"It could be devastating if the wrong people got hold of that information," said Jimmy Parker, president of the Raleigh Professional Fire Fighters Association. "We would immediately need to notify all of our banks and creditors."

Today's notification of the patients and the 3,545 firefighters, paramedics and others comes three weeks after a county Emergency Medical Services laptop containing the information disappeared from a WakeMed Raleigh Campus paramedic station. Wake EMS told police of the missing laptop two weeks ago. EMS officials previously said only 850 patients were affected.

The data in the laptop were not encrypted but had several layers of password protection. The county has hired a private company for $19,629 to help people protect their personal information.

The developments were revealed in public minutes from a Monday EMS staff meeting.

Efforts Thursday to reach Wake EMS Chief Skip Kirkwood were unsuccessful, and EMS district chief Jeff Hammerstein directed all inquiries about the missing laptop to a Wake County spokesman.

Deputy County Manager Joe Durham said officials waited to discover who exactly could be at risk for identity theft before notifying anybody. The county will mail letters to them today.

Rodney Privette, chief of the Rolesville Fire Department, said his department had no idea the information could have been compromised.

"We should have been contacted sooner. We should have been informed," Privette said.

County officials did not divulge Thursday the identities of those affected. It was unclear what months the patient records covered.

Messages left with WakeMed police Thursday concerning the status of the search for the computer were not returned. County officials said they were no closer to finding it.

Kirkwood has said officials initially thought the computer had been misplaced. They reported it to police Jan. 25 after an eight-day search turned up nothing.

Wake County network administrators use the Social Security numbers of paramedics and firefighters to let them log in to the EMS computer network to retrieve forgotten passwords, said Marshall Parrish, a Wake County spokeswoman.

Durham said the county is removing EMS workers' Social Security numbers from the county database and would encrypt the information on the county's remaining laptops.

Annie I. Ant-n, an N.C. State University computer science professor who specializes in data theft, said Thursday that Wake EMS could have done much more to protect personal information. "Clearly the data should be encrypted, and strong passwords should be used as well," Ant-n said.

She also said Social Security numbers should not be used for identification.

Stolen personal information is used by identity thieves to establish bank accounts and credit lines. Repairing the damage can take years, Ant-n said.

Joe Bryan, chairman of the Wake County Board of Commissioners, said the lost information would prompt a review of the way Wake County handles personal information in databases.

"We are conducting an investigation, and we will be taking positive actions to mitigate this from happening again," Bryan said.

sam.lagrone@newsobserver.com or (919) 836-4951

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