College students vulnerable to identity theft, yet unwary

Each fall across the United States, hundreds of thousands of college freshmen arrive on campus
hoping to figure out who they are and how they might fit into an increasingly complex world.
Figuratively speaking, they want to find themselves.

Unfortunately, in the process, too many students end up
losing their identities — in an all-too-literal sense.

Identity theft is a huge problem for college students, authorities say.

“Nowadays, it’s not enough to send your college freshman to school with a laptop, cellphone,
books and clean clothes,” credit-reporting giant Experian says in an online tip sheet for parents. “
A cross-cut shredder and a locking box large enough to hold a laptop loaded with current computer
security software are equally important.”

Hyberbole? Not really.

Statistics compiled by the Federal Trade Commission show that college students are
disproportionately vulnerable to identity theft. Americans in their late teens and early 20s
accounted for almost one-fourth of all the identity-theft complaints filed with the agency last

What’s more, according to Javelin Strategy Research, consumers 18 to 24 years old take
almost three times longer than any other age group to detect and report identity theft — 132 days
on average. During that time, consumer advocates note, a crook can wreak havoc on a victim’s
previously unblemished credit record.

“It’s no surprise that most college students are indifferent when it comes to their personal and
information security,” said campus-security expert Robert Siciliano, author of
The Safety Minute: Living on High Alert — How to Take Control of Your Personal Security and
Prevent Fraud
. “When you’re in your late teens or early 20s, you feel a sense of

That sense of invincibility was evident in the results of a survey of 1,000 college students and
an equal number of parents. Although 74 percent of the parents polled on behalf of the nonprofit
Identity Theft Resource Center said they think that students are at moderate to high risk for
identity theft, just 21 percent of the student respondents thought so.

Such complacency can lead to bad decisions, as underscored by some of the survey’s other
findings: Forty percent of students have provided their Social Security numbers online, and 10
percent have shared Internet passwords with friends. In contrast, just half shred sensitive

Sometimes, Siciliano said, students can do everything right — and still get burned.

“Students’ Social Security numbers have traditionally been openly displayed on student badges,
testing information and in filing cabinets and databases all over campus,” he noted.

Michael Kaiser, executive director of the National Cyber Security Alliance, encourages incoming
freshmen to quiz schools’ about their privacy policies.

“Ask: ‘What are you doing with my information? How do you store information? Are you going to
take that file and lock it in a cabinet when I leave here?’  ” Kaiser said. “I mean, those are the
basic things that keep information safe.”

Experian, the Ohio attorney general’s office and the National Association of Insurance
Commissioners offer tips:

• Don’t have sensitive mail sent to your campus address. Consider using your parents’ address or
a post-office box.

• Avoid putting outgoing mail in unsecured campus mailboxes. Instead, deposit mail directly in
Postal Service mailboxes.

• When you no longer need a document containing personal information, shred it. Do the same with
credit-card offers that arrive in the mail.

• Avoid carrying your Social Security card with you. Ideally, store it — and all other important
documents — in a locked filing cabinet.

• If your school uses Social Security numbers as student identifiers, request an alternative.
Similarly, ask that your Social Security number not be used in posting grades publicly.

• Secure your laptop and/or PC to prevent theft. Make sure that all your devices have up-to-date
anti-virus and spyware software. Install updates and patches as soon as they become available.

• Be wary of peer-to-peer file-sharing programs. Although they give you the ability to exchange
files, they also can provide scammers with unauthorized access to your computer.

• Don’t use a public computer to shop online or pay bills.

• Never lend a credit or debit card to anyone.

• Closely monitor credit-card and bank statements for suspicious activity. Don’t overlook
unauthorized charges, even if the dollar amounts involved are minimal. Scammers sometimes will rack
up a few insignificant charges to see whether they can get away with larger purchases.

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