School officials in Round Rock, Texas, are making plans to better protect the district’s computer equipment after a pair of thieves posing as network technicians walked into two neighboring elementary schools and walked out with more than $50,000 in high-end Cisco networking gear, the district’s technology coordinator told eSchool News.

Round Rock isn’t the only Texas district to have been victimized by the scam. Since April 1, schools in at least two other cities–New Braunfels and Austin–have reported similar heists. According to a May 6 report in the San Antonio Express News, schools along the state’s busy Interstate 35 corridor have filed for more than $120,000 in stolen equipment.

Ed Zaiontz, head of information services for the 35,000-student Round Rock Independent School District, says the problems in Texas should serve as a stern warning to school officials everywhere: Either beef up security or risk falling victim to similar schemes.

“Up until now, I would have said that something like this could never have happened in Round Rock,” Zaiontz said. “But it can happen anywhere, if you’re not careful.”

School officials in Texas never expected the Cisco Catalyst 4006 to be targeted by thieves. (Courtesy Cisco Systems Inc.)

On April 28, at approximately 2:45 p.m., two men reportedly entered Round Rock’s Berkman Elementary School claiming they had been summoned by the district’s technology office to repair a problem with the school’s phone system.

Zaiontz said the men identified themselves as technicians with Southwestern Bell Inc., the district’s telephone provider, and requested access to the school’s main distribution frame (MDF), a term often used by technicians to describe an area in the school where high-end phone and networking equipment is stored.

After entering what Zaiontz called “illegible signatures” into the school’s logbook, the two men, who reportedly were not asked to show identification, were escorted to the locked room by another employee.

Once inside, the men reportedly cut the high-tech fiber and copper cables connecting the school’s $25,000 Cisco Catalyst 4006 Layer 3 switch–a box roughly the size of a large television set–and simply “walked out with it,” Zaiontz said. The Cisco switch was responsible for routing all communications across the school’s computer network.

Zaiontz estimated the entire operation took no more than 45 minutes.

Two miles down the road, at 3:40 p.m.–less than an hour after the Berkman incident–a pair of men reportedly entered Round Rock’s Voigt Elementary School with a similar story. Again, the men signed the logbook and claimed to be technicians. This time, they did not identify themselves with a specific technology vendor–but were granted access to the MDF anyway, Zaiontz said. A half-hour later, another $25,000 Cisco switch had vanished.

Officials from the Round Rock Police Department said no arrests have been made in the case. A department spokesman told eSchool News on July 1 that the investigation is ongoing.

Meanwhile, the school district, which carries a $100,000 deductible on its insurance policy, was forced to swallow the cost of the missing switches.

Whether the police eventually make an arrest or not, Zaiontz isn’t holding out much hope for recovering the lost equipment. For Cisco to trace the serial number, he said, someone would have to send the hardware in for repairs.

Instead, district officials have begun looking for better ways to protect their investments.

That the thieves took specific pieces of equipment and knew the terminology used by technicians in the district indicates this was more than just a random occurrence, Zaiontz said.

“This was in broad daylight. No one broke in. The only disguise they had was a baseball cap,” he added. “These guys knew what they were looking for.”

In Round Rock, officials are considering installing electronic locks on network storage facilities so building-security personnel can track who enters the rooms and when.

They also are looking at the possibility of newer technologies such as radio-frequency identification tags, which can be used to inventory and track the equipment remotely from a central location.

But above all, Zaiontz said, the responsibility lies with building employees to “err on the side of caution.”

Anyone found working in school server rooms and storage areas, should have proper identification, he said. If people are snooping around, educators should question their intentions.

Links:

Cisco Systems Inc.

Round Rock Independent School District

Round Rock Police Department