Parents who send their kids off to college this fall may probably worry about their personal safety. But what about their financial safety? I am not talking about the fear that a student will run up debt — even though that’s a legitimate one. Instead, I am talking about identity theft.
Students ages 18 to 24 face the highest risk of identity theft. “They’re naïve, distracted, and often living in communal settings where others can access their computer, smartphone, mail and more,” warns Adam Levin, Co-Founder and Chairman of Credit.com and Identity Theft 911. In fact, young adults 19 years and younger accounted for 8% of identity theft complaints in 2011, while those age 20 — 29 filed 23% of the complaints (the largest single group) according to the Consumer Sentinel Network Annual Report for 2011
Students may think that because they don’t have a lot of money or an established credit history, they are not at risk. But that’s wrong. Anyone can be a victim; including teenagers. And students whose identities are compromised could find themselves still trying to clear up the mess long after they’ve graduated from college. It can also affect their ability to get a job.
Mobile. Because they move around, mail may end up at an old address — and in the wrong person’s hands.
Connected. Students don’t always fully protect their laptops, smartphones and other tools they use to get online, making it easy for someone who is snooping to access sensitive information.
Social. Younger adults are often very comfortable sharing personal information with others. Sometimes they share too much information, whether it’s on social networks, or with roommates.
Social networking in particular can be risky for students. “We encourage students, in particular, to shy away from certain activities that expose sensitive personal information. Like location-based apps that display where you are or where you live, or posting spring break pictures while still on spring break, which alert thieves that you’re not home,” warns Eduard Goodman, chief privacy office for Identity Theft 911. “But it’s also important to remember the identity and reputation risks social media poses, too. For instance, any thief can piece information about you together through various social networks. The pot of gold? Linking to your mother on Facebook or listing your birthday or zip code — all pieces of information that are typically used to authenticate your identity.”
Safety Strategies for Students
Challenge Authority. Students need to learn to say “no” to requests for personal information, except when absolutely necessary. Tell them it’s OK to ask questions about why personal information like Social Security numbers are being requested, and to ask how they will be protected.
Monitor Your Credit Like Your Grades. Just as students often go online to check their grades, they should be checking their credit as well. As soon as students establish credit by getting a student loan or credit card, for example, they should start monitoring their credit. Not only will this alert them to unusual activity, it will also help them become more credit savvy from the start. Levin says that as they can afford to spend the time online visiting their Facebook and email accounts daily, they can’t afford not to spend the time checking their bank and credit card accounts to ensure that every transaction they see is theirs and not an early warning sign of identity theft.
Avoid Sharing Technology. Levin warns that even if your children can trust their roommates, the same might not be true for the roommate’s friends. He suggests students use strong alphanumeric passwords with combinations of special characters and capitalization and to update their security software. If they really want to let someone else use their computer, have them set up a “guest” account. Similarly, their smartphones should be password protected and have appropriate security software since they are not simply communication devices but rather data storage devices like their computers—just a tad smaller.
Also, students should invest a few extra dollars, if necessary, for a security program that will let them remotely wipe their data if the phone is lost or stolen.
Parents Can Help, Too
Parents should consider two dorm (or apartment) warming gifts, recommends Identity Theft 911:
Cross-cut shredder: Use it for all those preapproved credit offers. Dumpster-diving is prevalent on campus because thieves know most kids just throw them away unopened.
Document safe: Lock up important papers like student loan and enrollment documents so they won’t be left lying around where anyone could nose through them.
Students can get their credit reports once a year at AnnualCreditReport.com. Then they can use Credit.com’s free Credit Report Card to check their credit score every thirty days. This service is truly free; no credit card number is requested. In addition to a credit score, it will provide a breakdown of the strengths and weaknesses of their credit history along with action steps to build stronger credit.
Another free resource: Credit.com’s free Identity Risk Score helps consumers understand their risk for identity theft using the same technology banks and Fortune 500 companies use to monitor a customer’s risk.
Image: Sterling College, via Flickr