Back to School, Back to Risk
Among the other things you worry about when you send your kids off to college, add this: college students are extremely vulnerable to identity theft.
According to the 2015 Identity Fraud Study, students are the least likely to be worried about identity theft, with 64% saying they are not very worried about it. They were also the least likely to know when identity theft had occurred—22% didn’t find out until they were notified by a collection agency or were denied credit.
A recent analysis by the Better Business Bureau confirmed the finding, showing college students are at elevated risk because of a few key factors:
- The belief that they are immune to being scammed
- Lack of experience managing money and personal information
- The large amount of time they spend browsing and shopping online
Here are some important safeguards to help college students avoid fraud:
Secure your electronics. Computers, phones, and tablets should all be password-protected. Download and apply security patches for all devices as prompted—these are designed specifically to fix known vulnerabilities that criminals can use to hack into your devices and exploit their contents. Make sure your devices have tracking software installed so you can find them if they’re lost or stolen.
Keep important papers safe. Social Security cards, financial records, passports, health records, and anything containing personal information should be kept in a secure location not accessible to roommates or other students. If there’s no safe place at school, consider leaving them at home.
Shred sensitive documents. Papers that are no longer needed (including any credit card offers you receive in the mail) should be shredded securely rather than thrown away or recycled.
Beware of free WiFi. Public WiFi networks offered in places like coffee shops, airports and libraries aren’t secure, so if you use them to go online, don’t pay bills, access password-protected accounts, or share personal information.
Check your statements. Before you pay your credit or debit card bills, check the statements for any suspicious activity or purchases. If you a charge you don’t remember making, call your credit card company or bank immediately. Reporting fraudulent charges quickly gives you a much better chance of not having to pay them. Also remember to check your bank transactions by logging in to your account or checking your paper statement as soon as you receive it.
Be careful with mail. If you’re mailing bills, checks, or anything that includes your personal information, be sure to deposit your mail in an official U.S. Post Office box rather than in a general “out” box. If you receive mail in a shared location such as a dorm or apartment, be sure to keep track of your incoming mail, or have sensitive mail sent to a more secure address such as a post office box or parents’ home.
Don’t share sensitive information: Don’t give anyone your passwords, lend anyone your ATM or credit card, or give out important information such as your Social Security number without verifying why the information is needed and that you’re speaking to an authorized entity.
Be careful with social media. Oversharing on social media is a fact of life in college, but it can also give identity thieves a wealth of information they can use to steal from you. Never include your birthdate, address, email, or phone number; and limit posting things that might give criminals clues to help them answer security questions or guess your passwords, such as your pet’s name, your school mascot, your place of birth, your mother’s maiden name, or other details about family members. Also be wary of posting travel plans, because you’re telling criminals when you won’t be at home.
Check your surroundings. Many identity thieves don’t use technology at all, instead using techniques such as “shoulder-surfing,” where criminals watch as you enter your PIN at an ATM or your password on a computer. Before you enter passwords, look around to make sure no one is paying unusual attention.
Use strong, different passwords. Don’t use the same passwords for multiple sites or accounts, and use longer passwords with a combination of characters. You don’t need to use something incomprehensible like xUiZP2$n%|PVAxO—research has shown that simple phrases are not only easier to remember, they’re virtually unbreakable. Try something only you will get, like IPlayed1stChairFlute@BandCampin2008.
Check your credit report once a year. You are entitled to a free credit report from each of the three main credit bureaus once every 12 months. To obtain your report, visit AnnualCreditReport.com, which is a safe, free service run by the credit reporting agencies and is the only free credit report source authorized by the government. The website will ask for your Social Security number and date of birth to authenticate your identity. Once you have obtained your credit reports, check them carefully for any suspicious activity (accounts you did not open, credit checks by companies you don’t recognize, and wrong addresses) and report any problems immediately to the fraud departments at Experian, TransUnion and Equifax.