college identity theftAs we enter the final days of summer and as students head back to college, families will want to be aware of some of the challenges that college students might face in the upcoming school year. Aside from the standard difficulties of college life, identity theft is also something worth preparing for, as students are by no means immune to the epidemic of identity fraud that’s been growing in recent years. How does identity theft affect college students? Keep reading as we detail how college identity theft can occur and how students can protect themselves against it.

Why are college students at risk for identity theft?

Last year, we talked about the groups that are most vulnerable to identity theft, and that list included college students. It turns out they’re still being targeted, as the FTC’s Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book 2017 noted a 121% increase in student loan fraud from the previous year and a 20% increase in credit card fraud. It also found that younger people (ages 20 to 29) report losing money to fraud more often than older people. While the increase in student loan fraud and credit card fraud could have been a result of a handful of different factors, those two types of fraud can directly impact students. Unfortunately, college students are likely targets of fraud because they are often viewed as young and inexperienced, and since they’re just starting their lives, they’re continually providing information to financial institutions, schools, property management companies and other entities. In essence, young adults simply have more opportunities to be scammed, as some may lack the life experience they need to evaluate scams or understand the significance of monitoring their credit reports for fraud.

How does college identity theft happen?

There are many different ways that college identity theft can happen, but some methods are more common than others.

Laptop theft and malware. Depending on where a student goes to school, smartphone and laptop theft might be a common occurrence. Given that these devices often house personal information, they can be used by thieves to compromise a victim’s identity – even if that’s not the thief’s primary purpose for stealing a student’s belongings. Alternatively, if physical access isn’t possible, a thief or identity fraudster can compromise devices with malware or other types of hacks.

Unsecured mailboxes. College students get a lot of sensitive solicited and unsolicited materials in the mail. Whether it’s information from school, prequalifying credit card offers, bank statements or messages from lenders and landlords, it’ll likely provide enough information for an identity thief to conduct their nefarious business.

Job scams and other types of offers scams. College students tend to apply for things like scholarships, jobs, clubs and programs or maybe even financial accounts and products, like bank accounts and credit cards. Scammers know this and sometimes pose as legitimate groups and services to lure students into giving up their information.

What can college students do to prevent identity theft?

College students should consider the three-pronged approach detailed below — cybersecurity, personal security and financial security — to protect themselves against the potential threat of identity theft.

Cybersecurity

Cybersecurity refers to practicing good online habits to reduce the likelihood of your information being compromised online. There are many different things you can do to practice this, but below are some of the most important:

  • Conduct a cybersecurity tune-up. The most comprehensive way to ensure that you’re practicing good cybersecurity habits is to conduct what we’ve previously referred to as a cybersecurity tune-up. This means making sure your online accounts have good, unique passwords (ideally created with the help of a password manager), deleting old accounts you don’t use, encrypting your devices with strong login credentials and properly disposing of old devices and storage media, like old phones and hard drives.
  • Avoid doing sensitive activities on public Wi-Fi and non-HTTPS web pages. Ideally, you should avoid public Wi-Fi, but as a student, this is easier said than done. However, you could at least consider avoiding sensitive activities, like accessing financial information, while using public Wi-Fi because of how easy it is to compromise devices seeking out public networks. If you live on campus and use the school’s network, consider getting a VPN for added protection. You’ll also want to avoid web pages that don’t have HTTPS (illustrated by green coloring, a padlock or a combination of the two in the URL bar). Hackers can easily intercept sensitive information typed on pages without HTTPS.
  • Don’t overshare on social media. While it might be tempting to talk about gifts and vacation plans on Instagram, keep in mind that these pieces of information can be used to determine where you’re going to be at a given time and whether or not you’re someone worth targeting. Just be careful about what you share and completely avoid sharing any sensitive or confidential information, like your financial situation (especially if you experience a windfall), addresses or social security numbers.
  • Learn how scams work. Not all scams are the same, but understanding how some work can help students recognize when they may be getting scammed. As such, you should familiarize yourself with the anatomy of scams so that you can identify what hackers call social engineering, or attempts to manipulate victims into giving up more information than necessary in a given circumstance.

Physical security

Physical security is about keeping the space around you clean and putting away your personal effects so that no one will rummage through your belongings. Surprisingly, a lot of fraud is familiar fraud, meaning its conducted by someone close to the victim. The more organized your system for managing pieces of personal information, the less likely it is that someone will try and compromise your personal identity. Here are some things you can practice to keep your belongings secure:

  • Lock up mail and paperwork containing sensitive information. A big mistake people make when it comes to identity theft is leaving sensitive letters and paperwork laying around in their home or car. If these get broken into, or if you have guests, it gives them a chance to either glance at or take anything containing sensitive information. Be sure to not only check your mail regularly, but also invest in a cross-shredder and destroy any old mail or paper containing sensitive information. It might also make sense to have a locked box or filing cabinets for students to store any sensitive paperwork or mail. Alternatively, students can make sure that any mail containing sensitive information is sent to a more secure permanent address, like a P.O. Box or their parents’ house.
  • Put devices away when you’re not using them. You should avoid sharing devices like computers and smartphones with anyone other than family members you trust. Also, don’t leave them lying around when you’re living with roommates. The same goes for your wallet or any other personal effects that contain sensitive information. As previously mentioned, you may want to invest in a locked box or safe for your most sensitive belongings or just leave them at your parents’ house.

Financial security

The final pillar that’s key to helping prevent identity theft is financial security. Since financial information can be easily compromised, it’s crucial for you to be aware of what you need to do to keep it safe.

  • Check your credit regularly and monitor your financial accounts. To ensure that no one is abusing your identity, you should check your credit by reviewing your three free annual credit reports. Checking your reports can help prevent fraud by allowing you to spot it early. If you want additional opportunities to monitor your credit reports, you should consider using a credit report monitoring service, which will alert you if something is added or changed on your reports. Additionally, consider a credit freeze, which can lock your credit completely, meaning no new accounts can be opened in your name. If you have credit cards or other financial accounts, make sure to look through those statements every month and report any suspicious activity as soon as it’s spotted.
  • Be mindful about where you shop or use your debit card. If you shop a lot, especially with a debit card, make sure you’re aware of where you use it, as some places are more likely than others to be secure. Ideally, stick to shopping at major, brand-name stores and restaurants, and always make sure there is no one looking over your shoulder when you’re entering your PIN at a payment terminal or ATM. Whenever possible, consider using a credit card, as it has better fraud protections than a debit card.

College is an exciting time, but it can also be the perfect time for a scammer to attack. Follow the tips listed above to stay vigilant and protect yourself. Keep up with our identity theft protection blog to learn more about keeping your identity safe.