Theft Is Hard Lesson for Uninsured Student

Times Staff Writer

When Dad went off to college, he took along his Johnny Unitas football, the clock radio that could get at most two stations, the handed-down typewriter that looked like it had seen combat duty in the South Pacific. Total value of all worldly goods, clothing excluded: $97.50.

As Dad drove home in the unburdened station wagon, after having dropped his daughter off at her dormitory last month, it occurred to him that the valuation of campus accouterment had risen almost as fast in the last 25 years as the cost of tuition.

Left behind with the daughter: A $1,595 personal computer with assorted software, a $375 color television accompanied by a $425 VCR; a $295 stereo. And that didn’t include the $300 bicycle. Or the $1,100 Camcorder, yet to be delivered as a birthday present.

And there had been talk that a microwave would be good to have in the dorm, especially on weekends, when the kitchen was closed.


Like many, this family had a lot to lose if their offspring’s study and entertainment center were stolen, damaged or obliterated by fire or some other dorm disaster. If it were, would their homeowner’s policy cover any of it?

A call to the insurance agent brought the response that “yes,” there was coverage if the student was a certified dependent, not out on his or her own, and still maintained the home address as a permanent residence. Were that the case, the policy would provide coverage at 10%. But what did that mean?

“Insurance,” said Patty Lombard of the Western Insurance Information Service, an industry-supported consumer-education agency based in Tustin, “is a very complicated industry, and there are a million things to keep track of.”

The 10% figure in most homeowners policies, she explained, would not refer to the amount of loss but rather to the amount of property coverage. Thus, a policy might provide $100,000 in coverage for contents and related property in addition to the dwelling. And 10% of that would mean $10,000 worth of coverage for the student away from home.


Homeowner Policies

Generally across the industry, most homeowner policies would cover the property of student dependents, Lombard said, although “there might be some exceptions,” and there also might be “certain limits.”

“Coverage can vary widely,” confirmed John Karanik, senior vice president of Atlantic Mutual Insurance Companies, with offices in Murray Hill, N.J. He asserted that a lot of policies make exclusions away from the home premises and place limits on how much can be paid out.

Karanik said his company offers a comprehensive plan--covering both the family’s home and cars--that would provide the full replacement cost of expensive in-dorm items such as stereos and computers. There is no maximum on student losses, he said. The average premium cost in California, he said, would run about $2,800 per year.

“The risks of theft and damage in college housing are always prevalent,” Karanik added, and he recommended that students and parents call their insurance companies to pin down the details--"what kind of coverage; is there a limit on it?”

Stolen Property

Specifically, Karanik suggested checking on exclusions, noting that some policies will not cover property stolen while a student has been away from college for longer than 45 days, as might be the case during summer vacation. He also advised making sure that the basic risks are covered--fire, theft, accidental damage.

Lombard agreed that parents would be wise to take a close look at their homeowners policy. Often, she said, “people don’t realize what they’ve got.”


At most colleges and universities, security agencies on campus can provide guidance as to theft risks and the extent of overall property losses. Lt. Rollin Donelson of the campus police at the University of Texas, Austin, noted that computer-related theft was prevalent among reported losses at on-campus dorms in the 1987-88 school year. He said security officials recommend marking equipment in two places--outside and inside--with both the student’s name and driver’s license.

And now is a good time to be advised that the perils of theft can worsen over the holidays, particularly at Christmas, when campuses are deserted.

“If students are away for an extended period of three or four days or more, we recommend locking up their valuables with a friend,” Donelson said. Some dormitories, he said, make available arrangements for secure storage for extended absences.

Bikes, not computers, are “probably the biggest personal theft problem” for students at Stanford, said Marvin Herrington, the university’s chief of police. Even though about half of Stanford’s 13,000 students are thought to have computers, Herrington could recall “only a couple” of recent cases of computer theft from student dorms. A more severe problem--until the culprit was caught, he said--was computer thievery from academic buildings.

Bicycle Populationm

Herrington reported that Stanford--where the bicycle population is no doubt greater than at many more-urbanized universities--may have from 200 to as many as 400 bicycle thefts in a year, with the valuation on each ranging up into the hundreds of dollars.

Students have to file a theft report with the university before the insurance company will accept a claim, Herrington noted. A campus or city police report is a standard requirement with most insurance companies.

At USC the Daily Trojan, the student newspaper, provides a daily “security roundup,” in effect printing a police blotter listing “events” reported to University Security. At USC, at least, the roundup provides a means for parents to judge the seriousness of theft risks on campus.


At 4 a.m. on a recent Saturday, the roundup noted, a “student’s stereo, television and money” were stolen from his room in a campus dorm.

Karanik, of Atlantic Mutual, said that his company is not reporting a high crime rate, nor anything like a dramatic rise in claims attributable to campus losses.

Yet, students “can be cleaned out, and it can be pretty serious when it does happen,” Karanik said.