As a college student, your biggest concerns should be passing that econ exam, making friends, and preparing yourself for your career — identify theft shouldn’t even be on your to-do. Unfortunately, college students are most at risk for identify theft, so it’s something you need to look out for and protect yourself from.
Identity theft is when someone takes another person’s personal information — i.e. social security number, driver’s license, birth certificate, mother's maiden name, address, etc. — and uses that information to take out loans, receive medical treatment, gain employment, or commit other fraudulent acts in the victim’s name.
Identify theft is more common amongst college students than the general population.
Students rely on technology more, live in close commune with people they may not know well, work from shared computer spaces. Most egregiously, students are often required to use their social security number to access their college’s online accounts, and if your university's computer security system is breached, those social security numbers are up for grabs. Not only that, but identity theft affects college students more than the average adult because college students rely heavily on their credit score to secure that first apartment, car payment, or big job and can't risk having a compromised credit score.
Here’s how students can be proactive and protect their identity from theft, so they can have fun, focus on their degree, and graduate from college worry-free:
1. Watch out for pre-approved card offers
You might have noticed that once you turned 18, suddenly every credit institution wanted to offer you a credit card. These pre-approved mass mailers arrive in college students mailboxes so often that most students end up throwing them away. Unfortunately, these mailers contain a ton of your personal information and identity thieves can pick these right out of the trash. Get in the habit of shredding these mailers before you throw them away. You should also shred, or tear into small pieces, any paper items that contain personal information like prescription bottle labels, bank statements, insurance information, etc.
2. Keep your computer information secure
Most students use laptops which are very easy to steal. Avoid writing login information on virtual note apps on your computer. Saving username and password login information to your favorite websites is fine, but avoid doing so for banking sites, online shopping accounts, and other sites where you might store sensitive information or credit card information. Memorizing your passwords is best, but if you need to write it down — do so on a piece of paper that you keep in a secure location like a lockbox. When creating passwords, avoid using combinations of personal information and instead opt for random long strings of letters and numbers. Fortunately, most computers will auto-generate a random hacking-safe password for you now.
3. Always log off after using public wifi
Always log out of secure sites, like online banking sites, especially when using public computers like at the school’s library.
4. Learn how to spot phishing scams
No...not that kind of fishing. Phishing emails are ones that appear to originate from a legitimate source like a bank or online retailer asking you to update or confirm some personal information. However, in a phishing email, a virtual identity thief is posing as a legitimate institution in an attempt to steal your personal information. Head here to learn how to spot a phishing scam.
5. Check your credit report annually
Tax time is a great time to get this over with. The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act allows you to get a free credit report annually. Set a reminder to check your credit history at annualcreditreport.com once a year, just to make sure there’s nothing suspicious on your account.
6. Be wary of what you share on social media
When scammers get a hold of your personal information they might guess the answers to security questions based on the information you share on social media. Avoid posting common answers to security questions on social media like mother’s maiden name, birth date, and name of your elementary school. Or better yet, set all your social media to private.
7. Only shop online from legitimate websites that are secure
To ensure that a retailer is secure, the URL will be preceded by https:// and it will have a logo that looks like a small padlock. Some online scammers may set up fake websites advertising great “deals” on a variety of products, which only exist to lure you into providing your credit card information.
8. If you think you’ve been a victim of identity theft, act on it!
First, notify all your financial institutions and close all accounts immediately. Then, file a police report. Finally, notify the three main credit bureaus (Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian) about the fraud, to ensure it doesn’t affect your credit score.
Ultimately, it's nearly impossible to avoid data breaches and information insecurity today, but that shouldn't stop you from living life to the fullest. Check your credit report regularly and get in the habit of making your personal security part of your routine. Then, get back to enjoying campus life!
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