More than a quarter of a million Hotels.com customers are now at high risk for identity theft after a password-protected laptop computer containing their credit card information was stolen from an Ernst & Young auditor's locked car in what appears to be a "random petty theft," a Hotels.com spokesperson was quoted as telling the Associated Press.

The Seattle incident at Hotels.com, a subsidiary of Expedia.com, is just the latest in a series of data-identity cases recently centering not around criminal hackers but around the garden-variety thug breaking into locked places.

In California on June 2, the acting commissioner of the state's Department of Financial Institutions was demoted and an employee he supervised fired after that employee's laptop — containing data on 232 people and 216 businesses — was stolen from his car.

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His offense, according to the Associated Press, was having left the computer in the car and for having not encrypted any of the data.

This all comes on the heels of last month's Veterans Affairs theft, wherein the unencrypted personal data of some 26.5 million veterans was stolen when a laptop was taken during a home burglary of a VA employee.

The VA is now saying that a lot more information was grabbed than initially revealed, according to the Associated Press.

Yet again on June 3, the AP tells us of information from active-duty personnel in those stolen VA files.

The pattern here is simple and disturbing, but not especially surprising.

Laptops, and now high-end PDAs, are making it easier for employees to work outside of the office. USB drives with more than a gigabyte of data can fit comfortably in a shirt pocket and the proliferation of wireless networks is making it so easy to work in the field and at home.

But employees — especially those working with customer e-commerce data — must simply adhere to the standard security protocols they've always known.

That means everything is encrypted as soon as physically possible. It absolutely means that data must be treated as the valuable treasure that it is.

Would employees have left stacks of $100 bills in their cars, in plain view? To a car thief or just an experienced thug, that's what a nice portable laptop looks like.

I'm a bit more paranoid than most, but when traveling, I never leave my laptop in my room. Lugging it to meetings and interviews isn't fun, but it sure beats the alternative.

As for burglaries in the home, that's a bit trickier. In that case, the data simply needs to be religiously backed up and stored in multiple locations and encrypted.

My biggest fear is wireless. Cell phones operating as wireless modems and wireless connectivity throughout is just begging for the next wave of identity theft to be airborne.

E-Commerce workers must understand that. I assure you that data thieves do.

Evan Schuman is retail editor for Ziff Davis Internet's Enterprise Edit group. He has tracked high-tech issues since 1987, has been opinionated long before that and doesn't plan to stop anytime soon. He can be reached at Evan_Schuman@ziffdavis.com.

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