Identity theft is the fastest growing crime in America. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 16.6 million people were victims of identity theft in 2012, resulting in direct and indirect financial losses of an estimated $24.7 billion. Unfortunately, college students can be especially vulnerable to this threat, as they may not realize how important their personal information is and how easily it can be compromised or stolen. Living with roommates, making online purchases and communicating through social media channels are just a few of the ways students can leave themselves dangerously open to thieves on the hunt.
- Parents and colleges play an important role in helping to protect students by explaining risks and offering reminders about the importance of safeguarding their information. This guidance should include these cautions:
- Only share personal information with trusted sources. Never provide personal information in response to unsolicited requests, and never send sensitive information via email or reply to unknown URLs. Make sure the institution you are communicating with is legitimate. If you aren't sure, look up the number and call them directly.
- Avoid carrying Social Security numbers and driver's licenses together in a wallet or purse.
- Create strong passwords and change them often, and avoid using easy-to-guess information such as a birth date or phone number. Never share passwords with anyone, and don't allow computers you use to remember usernames or passwords.
- Safeguard personal computers and mobile devices by using the most current anti-virus and anti-spam software, and installing a firewall along with anti-spyware software. If you're living off campus and using a wireless network, change the default password for the network. Mobile devices can be susceptible to viruses and malware, so make sure applications are current, and only install applications from trusted marketplaces.
- Avoid conducting online banking or other financial transactions in cybercafés or on public Wi-Fi networks.
- Watch out for copycat websites. It is easy to fall prey to a website that looks similar to a financial institution's site, for example. Check the spelling of the URL carefully to make sure you are where you want to be.
- If you think you are on a secure site and plan to conduct a financial transaction, check for the padlock symbol next to the URL and verify that the address begins with https://.
- Always log off any online accounts before leaving the page, closing the browser or stepping away from the computer.
- Check online banking and credit card transactions and statements often, and reconcile any transactions with your own records.
- Shred receipts, as well as any documents that contain personal information.
- Check credit reports annually. You can request a free copy of your credit reports from the three major credit reporting agencies by visiting annualcreditreport.com.
- Report suspicious activity immediately.
- Limit the amount and type of information you post online, particularly on social media sites.
Young adults should also be wary of being the victim of scams, or unwittingly participating in a fraudulent activity, such as being approached by someone they don't know with a request to cash in a lottery ticket or use their bank or other account to receive funds such as another person's tax refund in exchange for cash. It is important to use common sense -- if the request sounds even the least bit shady, it most likely is not a legitimate offer. The best course of action is to walk away, not respond to the solicitation or simply hang up the phone, and report the activity to a security officer on campus.
A student who thinks he or she may have been a victim of identity theft should take immediate steps to repair the damage and prevent further harm. The Federal Trade Commission has some great consumer advice on the steps to take, such as placing an initial fraud alert with the three national credit reporting companies and requesting copies of their latest credit reports.
Remember, anyone who uses the internet or is lax in properly shredding and disposing of personal information is a target for fraudsters. Being attentive and developing a keen "sixth sense" on how to protect personal information should be part of all students' core college curriculum.