Student Identity Theft Protection Guide
Student Identity Theft Protection Guide
Identity theft is the fastest growing crime in the United States, and an increasing number of identity theft victims are children. Minors are particularly vulnerable targets since their parents don’t normally check their credit reports, which can allow the crime to go undetected for years. And in some cases, lack of credit history makes it easier to obtain credit in a child’s name.
What you may not realize is that college students are just as susceptible as children, if not more so. Many colleges and universities continue to use students’ Social Security numbers for identification purposes, which means that these sensitive digits could be plastered on ID cards, grades, and other official paperwork. Students are often bombarded with preapproved credit offers, and may also receive letters regarding financial aid. Since students move frequently and may neglect to forward their mail, sensitive information is more likely to fall into the wrong hands. And since almost 30% of college students ignore their checking and credit card balances, they are far less likely to notice if they do become victims of fraud.
We have compiled a list of tips to help college students prevent identity theft.
1. Protect your sensitive personal information.
Your sensitive personal information can be used to withdraw money from your bank account, make fraudulent charges on your credit cards, or to accumulate debt in your name. Sensitive personal information includes your Social Security number, credit card and bank account numbers, any other personal finance data (such as paperwork regarding financial aid), your driver’s license number, medical information, and even your date of birth, address, and phone number.
Your Social Security number is the key to your identity. In the hands of an identity thief, it can be used to open new accounts in your name. You should never carry your Social Security number or card with you in your wallet. If you haven’t already memorized your Social Security number, do so. You might consider leaving your Social Security card at your parents’ house, and making a photocopy of it that can be locked up and brought out only when needed. If your college uses Social Security numbers as your student ID, request a new student ID with a randomized number that is not tied to your Social Security number. When filling out paperwork, you should only provide your Social Security number when absolutely necessary. In many cases, you will be asked for your Social Security number as a matter of course rather than necessity, in which case it is perfectly acceptable to decline.
Paperwork that includes sensitive personal information should be stored in a safe, unobtrusive place, such as a locked file cabinet. Don’t leave these types of documents in your backpack or purse, and keep track of your wallet. Your dormitory and campus may feel safe and comfortable, but it is not uncommon for identity thieves to take advantage of that trusting environment. Your roommate and new friends may seem perfectly nice, but there’s no need to tempt them by leaving your sensitive personal information lying around for the taking.
2. Protect your laptop.
Your laptop almost certainly contains a wealth of sensitive personal information. This access to your identity is far more valuable than the computer itself. That’s why it’s crucial to take a few basic precautions to protect your laptop and the information it contains.
One of the best ways to prevent laptop theft is to be conscious of the fact that laptops are extremely tempting and relatively easy targets for thieves. Never leave your laptop unattended in a library, café, or other public place. Don’t leave your laptop in your dorm room with the door unlocked. You may want to consider purchasing a lock that secures your laptop to a desk or table. There are also alarms that will alert you if someone attempts to move your laptop, or if you and your laptop are separated by more than a set distance, as well as laptop tracking and recovery services. At the very least, you should label your laptop with your name and contact information, write down the serial number, and put a brightly colored sticker or other identifying mark on your laptop so that you can recognize it easily.
Use passwords to protect the information stored on your computer. Ideally, you should not store any passwords on your computer, or allow your web browser to remember passwords. If you must, at least be sure to use a strong primary log-in password to prevent unauthorized access to your laptop. Memorize this password, and don’t save it or write it down anywhere on or around your computer. Whenever you are finished using your laptop, be sure to log out. For additional protection, you can encrypt sensitive data and disable instant message logging.
And of course, Internet security software is essential. Hackers use spyware, viruses, and phishing to gain access to your files, your passwords, your bank account and credit card numbers, and your PINs. The best way to thwart cybercriminals is to install software that offers thorough protection against a variety of threats, and set that software to update automatically. Since hackers take advantage of vulnerabilities in your operating system, web browser, and other software, you should promptly install all recommended patches and updates whenever they become available.
3. Be savvy when using the Internet, especially social networking websites.
Internet security software is a necessity, but there is no substitute for common sense. Understand the risks associated with social media and be smart when browsing the web.
Sharing personal data can make you an easy target for online attacks. An identity thief could use information about your classes, your network of friends and family, or your hobbies and interests to impersonate a trusted friend or convince you that they have the authority to request personal or financial data. They might also be able to guess your passwords or the answers to password security questions. Use privacy settings and common sense to avoid scammers. Most social networking sites allow you to control how much of your profile is revealed to users inside and outside your network. Adjust these settings to meet your individual needs, but in general, you should limit the amount of personal information you post. For example, never publish your full name, Social Security number, birth date, or address. Limit your circle of contacts. Consider restricting access to your page to a select group of people and setting your profile to “private” to prevent uninvited members from viewing your personal information.
Whether you are on a social networking site or any other website, you should always exercise caution when clicking on links or downloading files. Avoid opening links or downloads from strangers. Shortened URLs from shortening services such as TinyURL and Bit.ly can be used to obscure the true link destination and trick you into downloading malicious software. Phishing emails that seem to be from a financial institution or social networking site can send you to a spoofed website designed to capture your username and password. When in doubt, type the website address into your browser, or use a link in your bookmarks menu, rather than clicking on a potentially misleading link in an email. Never enter your password or account number unless you've verified the site's authenticity. Above all, pay attention and follow your instincts. If a website seems suspicious, click away.
Don’t use a public computer to shop online or conduct online banking. And when using a public computer for any reason, remember to log out of all websites and the computer itself once you are finished.
4. Don’t ignore snail mail.
Postal mail can provide many opportunities for identity thieves. Bank and credit card statements and routine paperwork from your college or university contain all the personal data necessary to open fraudulent accounts. Identity thieves can also use unsolicited, preapproved credit card offers to apply for credit cards in your name through the mail.
You should always shred preapproved credit card offers before discarding them. If you wish, you can prevent financial companies from sending these preapproved offers by filling out a request form at OptOutPrescreen.com . To reduce other types of junk mail, visit the Direct Marketing Association’s mail preferences service website and ask that your name be removed from marketing mailing lists.
Consider signing up for online bank and credit card statements and discontinuing paper statements. As with all paperwork that contains sensitive information, store your statements in a safe place or, if you discard them, shred them thoroughly first.
You may want to think about getting a post office box for your personal mail, or maintain your parent’s address as your permanent address. The latter will reduce the chance of mail going to an out-of-date address. Otherwise, make sure to fill out a change of address form at the post office when you move, to ensure that your mail gets forwarded to the current address.
5. Take responsibility for your finances.
Whether you have been earning and budgeting your own money for years or you still rely on an allowance from your parents, it’s time to take responsibility for your own finances. Review your bank account and credit card statements regularly, and report any unauthorized charges immediately.
You should also begin to give some thought to your credit history. If you have not already done so, you should check your credit report for fraudulent or erroneous information. Since some businesses only report to one credit bureau, it is best to request your credit report from all three (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) to ensure that you have not already been victimized without your knowledge. If an identity thief opens a new account in your name, that information should appear on at least one of your three reports. For more information about establishing and protecting your credit, check out Credit 101 , another NextAdvisor.com guide specifically created to educate young adults.
Avoid signing up for a credit card with vendors on campus. If you are interested in signing up for a credit card , it is safer to contact the credit card company directly.
6. Consider a proactive identity theft solution.
There are several companies that provide comprehensive protection against identity theft. These services work to prevent, detect, and, if necessary, resolve identity theft on your behalf. Depending on the service, protective measures include fraud alerts to help prevent new lines of credit from being opened in your name, junk mail reduction, public and private database scanning for misuse of your personal information and more. To learn more about identity theft protection and the various companies that offer this service, take a look at our reviews and comparison chart .
7. Take action immediately if you think you have been victimized.
If your credit or debit card is lost or stolen, call the bank or credit card company right away and cancel the card. You should also notify your bank right away if you notice any unfamiliar activity on your bank or credit card statements.
If you suspect that you may have become a victim of identity theft, contact the fraud departments of the three major credit bureaus and request that fraud alerts be placed on your files.
Review your credit reports for inquiries from companies you haven’t contacted, accounts you didn’t open, and debts that you can’t explain. Check that your personal information is correct. If there is any incorrect information, contact the relevant credit bureau to have it removed. Close any accounts that have been tampered with or opened fraudulently. And file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission and with your local police.
If you subscribe to an identity theft protection service or a credit monitoring service, your service provider will handle these steps as well as providing additional guidance and assistance.
8. Help curb identity theft by sharing these tips with other students.
College students may find it difficult to muster up much concern about identity theft. You have a sense of invincibility, your campus feels like a safe and friendly environment, and you have more interesting and immediate things to think about. But the risk of identity theft is very real, and unfortunately, it will likely be a growing risk for years to come. Restoring your identity can be an expensive and time consuming process. It is far better to take a few sensible precautions than to suffer the consequences of becoming a fraud victim. In addition to protecting yourself, you can help curb the threat of identity theft by sharing this guide with your friends and classmates.
Click here to read more from Next Advisor