Despite arrest, monitoring, and warning efforts, UMass students still leaving their electronic devices open to theft

As technology becomes a daily requirement in the classroom, college students put themselves at risk by taking their devices around campus

W.E.B. Dubois Library from Chancellor's Drive

W.E.B. Dubois Library from Chancellor’s Drive

By: Jordan Deschenes


For UMass Amherst, the W.E.B. Dubois library is the center of student life during mid term and final exam weeks every semester. For some, it’s a place to study for a test or get work done before heading back to the dorm. For nearly 30,000 student faces at UMass, the library is a resource available to use 24/7. For a select few unfortunate students, the library is place to have a laptop or other mobile device stolen.

Last spring semester, UMass Police Department made one arrest in connection with a series of laptop thefts in the Dubois library. Despite nearly over a decade of anti-theft propagation at annual new students’ orientations and recent campus-wide efforts like “Like it, Lock it, Keep it” to educate those further about the cost of having a device stolen or lost, UMass Police reminds students to be diligent.

    “We don’t have any specific numbers. I can say that once that arrest was made, we saw a decline, but the overall message is not about how many laptops were stolen; it’s about reducing those opportunities,” says UMPD Deputy Chief Ian Cyr. “These are absolute crimes of opportunity.”

Thefts during last school year’s Spring semester came as part of a trend – Officer Cyr and UMPD regularly note an increase in laptop theft during the final exam periods prior to the holiday season in December or in late April and early May. As the library gets more crowded during these short periods at the end of each semester, students are pressed to find a place to “set up shop” with their notes and electronic devices.

Both UMPD and library employees note that when students want to take a break, they often leave their workspaces unattended, using a laptop or backpack as a placeholder – a habit that UMPD, OIT, and campus security strongly advise against. According to residence hall security manager Jim Meade, the library’s elongated hours of operation compared to years past have also contributed to increased traffic.

Nisha, a building monitor at the Dubois Library, notes that students regularly leave their personal belongings out in the open to the point that a thief “could take just about anything.” Dining commons such as Berkshire and Franklin are also places with high student traffic where the practice of place holding is commonplace.

     “This (iPhone) has become as common to you as a pack of gum and it’s easy to leave it around and it’s kind of taken for granted,” says Officer Cyr. “It’s part of who you are – certainly in your academic pursuits.”

Student laptop use in a lecture

UMass Communications professor Michael Morgan has researched the effects of media and technology on families, noting a high level of interpersonal distraction in the household with the introduction of devices such as smartphones, tablets, and even the cell phone.

     “For years, families were off in their own rooms watching TV. Now, they’re all back together in the same room, but one’s on a laptop, one’s on a smartphone, one’s playing video games – they’re all in the same room, they’re all on their own devices,” says Morgan.

Like modern families sitting in front of a television, college students have a similar relationship with their peers and teachers in the classroom, especially when they have a laptop and smartphone laid in front of them. Among other professors, Morgan has noticed a similar propensity for distraction among students on their phones or tablets while trying to take notes during a lecture. Officer Cyr describes this reliance on multiple devices as “intrinsically linked,” where students maintain a strong connection to devices based upon what information is being stored on them.

The diversity of information that students have on their respective devices also creates a great deal of stress, especially if one device is lost, broken, or stolen. From his experience, Officer Cyr believes that such an experience is “detrimental” to one’s psychological health, especially if the laptop is not recovered or fixed.

On many occasions, a stolen laptop is pawned off for cash in order to support a drug habit, making it evidence in a crime, according to Cyr. In several cases, the length of legal proceeding and necessity for evidence in court has left students and their parents frustrated when they call and are unable to recover the stolen device.

     “Often, we’ll make an arrangement with the affected student to come into the police station, bring some sort of external drive, take everything off of this laptop that you want, and put it onto this drive,” says Cyr.

Cyr and other officers have noted that for students who aren’t out to be “a criminal enterprise,” allowing them to recover their information off of the device makes “all the difference” when dealing with a theft for the first time. Such an experience prompts most victims to back-up their information, a “good practice” according to Cyr.

     “People frequently back up after they’ve lost one device, empirically, which is always unfortunate…whether somebody stole it, whether you dropped it, whether the hard disk decides to stop working – it takes most people one time of that before they start diligently backing up,” says UMass Chief Technology Officer Chris Misra.

Although backup software is readily available to faculty and staff, Misra believes that students have a sizable choice of options for their own devices. Aside from what he refers to as “hit or miss” results with network-based Cloud software, USB keys with “more data than you’ll ever need” have become less expensive than in past years, running for under $20 at Staples.

A "Like It, Lock It, Keep It" poster at the Franklin Dining Common entrance ramp

A “Like It, Lock It, Keep It” poster at the Franklin Dining Common entrance ramp

According to Enku Gelaye, Dean of Students, the UMass administration is aware of the financial implications of purchasing and maintaining electronic devices for students. Recent construction on-campus has provided facilities with hundreds of new iMac systems – available for all students on campus. Rental and loan devices are also available in the library, aiding both low-income students as well as those who either lost or broke their respective devices.

     “We do a great job talking to students who have those resources about securing them, but the university also does a really good job of making sure we have computers and stations all over the library and all over campus,” said Gelaye. “We understand technology has socioeconomic preventions and we also work overtime to makes everybody has the technology they need to do their work.”

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