What every college student should know about identity theft
When college students think about complications at school, identity theft is usually the last thing on their mind.
Concerned parents may well advise their college kids to stay out of dark corners, lock their doors at night, and travel in groups. While these measures might help prevent college students from getting robbed in conventional ways, they cannot protect them from one of the worst kinds of theft imaginable: having their identities stolen and used to defraud others.
The United States Federal Trade Commission says that identity theft is America's largest consumer complaint.
What is identity theft? Simply stated, it is the theft and fraudulent use of another's unique identification and personal information, such as a birth certificate, driver's license, Social Security number, or credit card account number, for unlawful or criminal gain.
Identity theft generally falls into two categories: casual or one-time opportunism, and professional organized theft.
A casual or one-time identity theft might involve a former roommate using your account at a local store or going online to access your account. Professional organized identity theft involves criminals who are part of professional criminal enterprises.
Identity theft can affect your credit rating, criminal record, future borrowing possibilities, as well as your job opportunities.
If you want to know more about identity theft and how big of a problem it is for the general population, you should check out the ScamBusters.org Identity Theft Resource Center:
Why college students almost never think they are identity theft targets
As a college student, you might think you're immune to identity theft because, after paying your student loans, living expenses, and funds for fun, you have little or nothing to offer a thief.
You still have your identity -- your personal information and all the numbers and accounts that identify you as who you are. And your identity is what these thieves want.
Their goal is to take advantage of people like you and use your good standing for criminal purposes.
It's a fact that most students don't realize just how vulnerable they are. Perhaps they see identity theft as only a minor risk in the here and now, today, when they don't have much to lose.
But identity theft can reach from the past into the future. A former roommate or friend from five years ago may not act like the same nice person you knew back then. This "friend" could, for example, recall your email address, guess your password, and go on from there.
Why college students make prime identity theft targets
College is the time for studying, driving in circles in search of a parking spot, trying to make enough money to afford some must-have item, meeting more people than you met during the entirety of your pre-college life, and sleeping for a few hours in between.
It's an exciting and challenging time, a time when your head tends to spin just thinking about all the responsibilities that come along with college life and growing up. Add to that whirlwind the number of times that your regular day-to-day activities call for the casual use of credit cards and ID cards, and you have a situation that could readily mark you as a potential identity theft target.
Why are students particularly at risk for identity theft? Mainly because their credit records are mostly blank, which means they can be easily used to secure new credit. Identity thieves know this and so are specifically targeting students for identity theft.
These are the five most common ways that college students leave themselves open to identity theft:
- Living on campus in dorms or with roommates.
- Ordering clothes, books, movies, lava lamps, ping pong balls, or any other merchandise over the Internet.
- Throwing away credit card offers without shredding them into a million pieces.
- Being careless with student loan pin numbers and documentation.
- Using cell phones to talk about things that might be useful for an identity thief to hear.
As long as you do any of those things -- and we're willing to bet that you do -- you're raising your chances of being a victim of identity theft.
In 2002, Impulse Research for Chubb Group Insurance Companies conducted a nationwide survey of college students for identity theft research purposes.
They discovered that 49 percent of today's college students receive frequent applications for credit cards, and 30 percent of those college students throw the applications away in their original condition - that is, with all the personal information intact.
To make matters worse, the survey also showed that almost 30 percent of college students ignore their checking account and credit card balances. And as long as college students don't keep track of their funds, they make it much easier for identity thieves to succeed.
Of course, we're not implying that college students bring identity theft upon themselves. On the contrary. Many colleges are also guilty of practices that make their students especially vulnerable to identity theft.
The most harmful (and distressingly common) of such practices is identifying students by their Social Security numbers -- that is, using Social Security numbers as student ID numbers.
And unfortunately, student ID numbers are used for just about everything in college. They appear on class rosters, are copied onto checks, and are etched onto campus ID cards - which are constantly shared among students.
And, according to that same research survey, 48 percent of today's college students even have their Social Security numbers posted next to their grades!
When colleges make it this easy for your most personal information to be discovered, it's no wonder that more college students than ever are becoming identity theft victims!
While it may be impossible for you to single-handedly change your college's system, there are some steps you can take to keep your identity at least somewhat more private.
Try not to publicly display your:
- Phone number
- Bank account number
- Credit card number
- Social Security number
If that sounds simple, it's because it is. If you keep your private information private, it is much harder for you to fall victim to identity theft.
Click here to continue and find out exactly how identity theft affects college students on campus and online, as well as detailed tips to help college students prevent identity theft.