Cracking down on college students, the music industry is sending thousands more complaints to universities this school year than it did last year as it targets music illegally downloaded over campus computer networks.

A few schools, including Ohio and Purdue universities, already have received more than 1,000 complaints accusing individual students since last fall, the Associated Press (AP) reports–significant increases over the past school year. For students who are caught, punishments vary from eMail warnings to semester-long suspensions from classes.

The trade group for the largest music labels, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), identified at the request of AP the 25 universities that received the most copyright complaints it has sent so far this school year. The trade group long has pressured schools to act more aggressively against online pirates on campus.

“It’s something we feel we have to do,” RIAA President Cary Sherman said. “We have to let people know that if they engage in this activity, they are not anonymous.”

The top five schools are Ohio, Purdue, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, University of Tennessee, and University of South Carolina. The RIAA complained about nearly 15,000 students at those 25 universities, nearly triple the number for the previous school year.

“They’re trying to make a statement,” said Randall Hall, who polices computers at Michigan State University, seventh on the list with 753 complaints. Hall meets personally with students caught twice and forces them to watch an eight-minute anti-piracy DVD produced by the RIAA. A third-time offender can be suspended for a semester. “I get the whole spectrum of excuses,” Hall said. “The most common answer I get is, ‘All my friends are doing this. Why did I get caught?'”

At the University of Massachusetts at Amherst–which received 897 complaints, sixth on the list of colleges receiving the most–first- and second-time offenders receive escalating warnings about piracy. After a third complaint, the school unplugs a student’s internet connection and sends the case to a dean for additional punishment.

The music group said each university should set its own penalties for stealing songs and said campuses are rife with such thefts. “When we look at the problem, it’s particularly acute in the college context,” RIAA Chief Executive Mitch Bainwol said. The music group said popular file-sharing software programs it has targeted at schools include AresWarez, BitTorrent, eDonkey, and other programs that operate on the Gnutella and FastTrack services.

Under federal law, universities that receive complaints about students illegally distributing copyrighted songs generally must act to stop repeat offenders, or else the schools can be sued. The entertainment industry typically can identify a student only by his or her numerical internet address and must rely on the school to correlate that information to trace a person’s real-world identity.

Some schools aggressively warn students after they receive complaints. Others don’t. Purdue, which has received 1,068 complaints so far this year but only 37 in 2006, said it rarely even notifies students accused by the RIAA, because it’s too much trouble to track down alleged offenders. Purdue said its students aren’t repeat offenders.

“In a sense, the [complaint] letter is asking us to pursue an investigation, and as the service provider, we don’t see that as our role,” spokesman Steve Tally said. “We are a leading technology school, with thousands and thousands of curious and talented technology students.”

To stop students from pirating music, dozens of colleges and universities have tried providing free or subsidized access to legal subscription services over campus networks in the past few years. Despite the efforts of schools and universities to change students’ downloading habits, however, executives from the music and movie industries say the illegal sharing of copyright-protected digital media is still rampant on campuses nationwide.

Legal services typically offer more than a million tracks, but they limit how and where the songs can be heard. Getting songs to transfer to digital players costs extra, and tracks might not work with all gadgets, such as Apple’s popular iPod.