Updated at: 10/11/2012 2:05 AM
By GARY FINEOUT
(AP) TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Computer hackers broke into a Florida college’s computer system and stole the confidential information of nearly 300,000 students statewide and the school’s president, officials said Wednesday.
The problem that at first involved just employees at Northwest Florida State College now is much larger than suspected.
The Department of Education said hackers stole 200,000 records including names, Social Security numbers, birthdates, ethnicity and gender for any student statewide who was eligible for Florida’s popular Bright Futures scholarships for the 2005-06 and 2006-07 school years.
"We speculate this was a professional, coordinated attack by one or more hackers," said college President Ty Handy in a memo that went out to employees on Monday. Handy said the hackers did not get all the information from one file, but instead were able to piece together enough data to steal identities of at least 50 employees including his own.
The information has been used to either obtain loans that rely on being able to debit a personal bank account or to take out a Home Depot credit card.
"I recognize that this is a significant hassle for those whose information is used to commit identity theft," stated Handy. "I was one of the first seven or eight to be hit personally and I have spent several hours on the phone working with my bank and others to protect myself. It is not an enjoyable experience and for that I apologize."
Cristie Kedroski, the college vice president for university advancement, said it is standard practice for financial aid administrators to download the entire state scholarship file. She said administrators use the file when cross-checking information of students attending the school.
The hackers also stole more than 3,000 employee records, including some that contained confidential financial information such as direct deposit account numbers. Some 76,000 records containing personal identification information from current and former students at the college were also hacked.
Because of the scope of the breach that occurred between late May and late September, federal authorities have joined the local and state investigation that got under way last week, said the school.
"We want to be sure that we fully understand the situation and provide accurate information to those impacted," Florida College System Chancellor Randy Hanna said in a statement. "While some of the contact information is dated, we will be trying to reach every student whose records may have been captured."
The main 264-acre campus is located in Niceville, a small town near Eglin Air Force Base. The seven campuses include about 17,000 students.
Associated Press writer Brent Kallestad contributed to this story.
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(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)