College students are prime targets for identity thieves. They are busy and distracted, and rarely are actively engaged in managing their credit. And they are usually required to fill out a flurry of paperwork as school begins that includes the most sensitive information, such as Social Security numbers. In additional to financial aid, enrollment forms or rental documents, many will encounter credit card applications for the first time, not to mention creation of various computer accounts and passwords that are likely to follow them around for a lifetime.
“College students represent a tasty target for identity thieves because they literally live online, operate in an open environment where there are multiple points of vulnerability on fairly unsecured college networks, have roommates or housemates who have access to much of their personal identifying information and for most their GPA is of far greater importance than their FICO scores,” says Adam Levin, owner of Credit.com and author of the forthcoming book, Swiped.
Moreover, college-aged victims of ID theft are often the last to know. A Javelin Strategy & Research study in 2015 found that 22% of students found out they were victims of identity fraud when contacted by a debt collector or when they were denied credit – which is three times higher than average fraud victims. That’s why the start of the school year is a very good time to talk with students entering or returning to college about protecting their identities.
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So here are some Dos and Don’ts.
DO leave ‘foundational’ paperwork like birth certificates and Social Security cards at home. Young adults might be tempted to carry their SSN cards with them because of all that paperwork, but that can be a recipe for disaster. A smart criminal who steals a wallet would gladly trade all the cash and credit cards for that SSN card, which can be used to commit the worst kinds of ID theft. Instead, use those elementary school skills and commit the SSN to memory.
DO be smart when using public WiFi. Let’s face it — students are going to use laptops in lounges and coffee shops all over school, and probably all over town. There’s a risk associated with doing so, but some common sense choices can lower that risk. Assume data you type into your computer at a hotspot can be swiped, so minimize use of sites that require logins. Avoid doing sensitive tasks like online banking. Wait until you are on a secure network to deal with money.
DON’T trade your financial life for a free pizza. Don’t go crazy with the credit and debit card applications. In fact, you may be better off setting up your checking account / allowance account with your home bank before you leave for school. If your school encourages you to load your financial aid onto a school-branded debit card, know that card might have higher fees than your home bank, be judicious about how you use it. And of course, the fewer applications you fill out with your personal information, the better. Every piece of paper on which you enter your SSN is a piece of paper that a criminal might get their hands on. That free pizza could turn out to be really expensive.
DO come up with a personal strategy for creating secure passwords. Many accounts you create during college years will stick with you the rest of your adult life, so it’s worth putting thought into user names and passwords you select. Don’t use your pet’s name or high school mascot followed by a month. Try this instead: Write a sentence that you won’t forget, like I Was Born in Seattle on October 1. Use the first letter of the words in that sentence — IwbiSoO1 — and you have a pretty good password. Add a few special characters to it, like this Iwb!SoO1 and you are really in business.
DON’T overshare on social media. In high school, the consequences of social media missteps are often minimal. That really changes as you enter adulthood. Embarrassing photos could cost you an internship. Oversharing could cost you your credit. Don’t reveal your birthday. Don’t talk about pet’s names, siblings or mascots. Don’t give away hints that a criminal could use to social engineer their way into your accounts.
DO become familiar with your credit reports and credit scores. Finally, entering adulthood is a great time to get in the habit of checking your credit reports annually, which you can do for free on AnnualCreditReport.com. Checking your credit before the first school day of the year to look for any signs of errors or identity theft can become a Fall ritual that will serve you well the rest of your life.