Targeting Book Crooks

Madison, Wisc., implements "book background checks" to cut down on textbook thefts

CHICAGO -- Colleges and universities are intensifying efforts to reduce the growing problem of textbook thefts by marking books with invisible ink, requiring used bookstores to keep logs of sellers and banning the resale of the expensive volumes by non-students.

Many textbooks now cost well over $100 and are tempting targets for thieves who often can sell them for half the original price. The City Council in Madison, Wis., home to the University of Wisconsin, passed an ordinance this year requiring bookstores that buy used textbooks to keep detailed records on the sellers: physical descriptions and driver's license, Social Security or state ID numbers.

The ordinance, which took effect in July, was prompted by "a spike in the number of people who were selling the books to get money for drugs," campus police Detective Peter Grimyser says.

Sandi Torkildson, owner of A Room of One's Own, a bookstore four blocks from campus, objects to keeping the personal data for six months and sharing it with police at their request without search warrants. "It's an issue of readers' privacy," she says.

Most campus police don't keep statistics on textbook thefts, but James Howard, textbook manager at Oregon State University's campus bookstore, says thefts rise as prices increase. "We see a lot of stolen books," he says. "It's easy cash."

What campuses are doing:

*The University of Texas at Arlington helps students mark their textbooks with their names and other identifying information using ink that can be seen only under fluorescent lights. Campus bookstores check used books for the markings.

*When someone tries to resell a book at the Oregon State University bookstore, reports of stolen copies pop up on checkout screens. The store paid out $1.5 million last year to buy back used textbooks.

*The University of Montana allows students to return textbooks only on a single day two weeks into each semester, and the bookstore requires sellers to present IDs, says Jim Lemcke, chief of public safety.

*At Penn State, campus and off-campus bookstores buy used textbooks and offer refunds only to those with student IDs.

Chicago's DePaul University has a similar policy. "If you come to turn in a book for cash, you have to be a DePaul student," says Mike Dohm, assistant director of public safety. "They won't even talk to you if you're not."