Students snagged in UT snack scam

Those who fooled vending machines with debit cards may have to repay money

By Erik Rodriguez
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Saturday, June 28, 2003

Hope that bottle of Dr Pepper was worth it.

In a case of the coin-on-the-string trick gone high-tech, 578 students at the University of Texas figured out how to defeat a debit card system on vending machines throughout campus, then stole more than $6,300 worth of snacks, sodas and candy bars over the past three months, officials said Friday.

Now, the university is investigating, and there's a good chance the students will have to pay it all back.

Although most students took only one item, others returned again and again to cheat the machines, manipulating the Bevo Bucks debit card system to make hundreds of transactions totaling hundreds of dollars. The incident was made public Friday through the UT police department's campuswide crime reports.

In one case, a student made 562 vending machine transactions for a loss of $460.40, university records show. Several others stiffed the machines for about $20 to $30 worth of goods, while a majority of students made transactions of only a dollar or less. The transactions were made between March 21 and June 12, according to the police report.

UT administrators said they discovered the apparent thefts during a routine audit of the UT Division of Housing and Food. A campus police investigation is under way.

"I do know there's been no students called in," said Pat Clubb, university vice president for employee and campus services. "It's really in the preliminary stages."

Here's how officials believe it happened: Students swiped their Bevo Bucks debit card, allowing the vending machine to release the product they selected. They then apparently disabled the system by disconnecting a modem cable from the machine, which prevented the card from being charged for the purchase.

Auditors found the thefts later, when they noticed hundreds of "open transactions" -- debits that had not been completed. The system has since been changed, officials said.

Bevo Bucks, which were introduced a few years ago, allow UT students to convert their student identification cards into limited-use debit cards that can be used at vending machines, dormitory cafeterias and retailers and restaurants near campus. Several fast-food restaurants, including Burger King, Taco Bell and McDonald's, participate in Bevo Bucks, according to the program's Web site.

UT administrators are in the process of contacting the offending students, who are being identified through the student ID cards used in the fraudulent transactions. Police are investigating, but it's unlikely any students will be charged with a crime, said UT Police Chief Jeffrey Van Slyke.

"They're going to try to handle this administratively," Van Slyke said. "We'll write them a letter and let them know they've been caught."

Officials are still considering what will happen to students. It's possible they won't be allowed to register for classes until they repay the amount that they took, Van Slyke said.

Other administrators, such as internal audits director Lon Heuer, said they wanted to be sure to confirm what the reports and police investigation suggest before they release further information.

"We need to confirm a suspicion, and that's what we're trying to do," Heuer said.

erodriguez@statesman.com; 445-3673