College students have many different things competing for their attention, from classes to school activities to an active social life. With all these demands, fighting identity theft might not seem like a pressing matter. But students are prime targets for identity theft, which can cause long-term damage to their finances and credit.
Why Are College Students Vulnerable to Identity Theft?
There are several reasons that college students are vulnerable to identity theft:
- Universities keep personal data about their students on file. This data includes personally identifiable information (PII) like names, physical addresses and even Social Security numbers (SSNs). The school may also have information about coursework, transcripts and financial aid. If criminals gain access to this data by exploiting system vulnerabilities, it can be used to commit identity theft.
- Students often live in community settings like dorm rooms or share rental homes with roommates. When there are many people coming and going, it’s easier for a criminal to gain access to a student’s personal documents and belongings like purses, wallets, cell phones and computers.
- Younger students usually don’t have a long credit history or extensive experience with banking. They may be less likely to monitor their financial accounts and credit reports to identify warning signs of identity theft.
- Credit card companies and lenders frequently extend offers to students. These offers contain data that criminals find useful for committing identity theft.
- Students might connect to unsecured Wi-Fi networks on campus, at coffee shops and at the homes of friends. Unsecured networks are vulnerable to hackers.
- Student loan fraud is big business for scammers.
Whether you’re a full-time student on campus or you’re taking classes from home, you need to take steps to protect your identity. Once you become a victim, it can take months (or even years) to recover your identity and undo the damage to your finances or credit.
11 Ways for College Students to Help Avoid Identity Theft
Protect Your Personal Data
Even basic information like your name, address and birth date can help criminals commit identity theft, so it’s important not to give out this information when it’s not necessary. And you should always safeguard sensitive information like your SSN, bank account and credit card numbers and your Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID.
Don’t Overshare on Social Media
When you post your whereabouts, activities and friends publicly on social media, it’s easy for criminals to learn personal details about you. Be careful about the information you share on social media and use privacy settings to restrict who can see your accounts.
Use Strong Passwords
It’s easy to use the same password for your email, bank account, university account and other online logins. But if someone figures out a single password by hacking or even shoulder surfing at the school library, it will be easy for them to break into your other accounts. Follow these best practices for strong passwords.
Avoid Unsecured Wi-Fi Networks
Connecting to unsecured Wi-Fi networks makes it easy for others to access the information you send and download to your personal devices. Since secure networks aren’t always available in libraries, student centers and other public locations, you should be wary of the information you share and access when you’re connected to public Wi-Fi. When you can, avoid unsecured networks altogether. Or use a VPN to encrypt your data.
Use Public Computers Wisely
When you’re working on public computers in the library or computer lab, make sure you’re keeping your information safe. It’s fine to use public computers to work on homework or do research, but it’s generally not a good idea to do your banking, online shopping or anything else that requires a password or financial information.
Don’t Lend Out Your Credit Card or Debit Card
Don’t lend your credit card, debit card or other payment method to a friend. If you must lend money to someone, use cash, a check or a payment app to ensure it remains a one-time transaction.
Protect Your Personal Documents
All personal documents, from your Social Security card to your transcripts, bank account statements and student loan documents should be secured. This is easier said than done in a dorm room, but a good hiding spot and a lockbox can offer you some degree of protection. Or you can keep your documents off-campus in a safety deposit box or in a safe in your childhood home.
When you need to dispose of documents like credit card offers, old student loan correspondence or bank account statements, don’t just throw it in the recycling bin. Use a paper shredder so no one can retrieve the information later.
Protect Your Mail
Don’t have important documents sent to your off-campus rental or unsecured mailbox, where others can snatch it. Use a permanent address such as your parent’s home, a locked campus mailbox or a P.O. box at the local post office.
Update Your Computer
Make sure you install patches and updates to your computer, phone and other devices. These updates can help keep you safe from viruses and malware.
Watch Out for Scams
Don’t click on links or open attachments in emails from people you don’t recognize. Even if you do recognize the source, make sure to verify it’s legitimate before you take action – scammers may try to impersonate your school, financial loan service and other organizations. Only contact these organizations through official channels you find on their website.
Monitor Your Credit
It’s important to monitor your credit report to ensure that the information it contains is fair and accurate. If you see accounts you don’t recognize, credit applications you never submitted or accounts in collections that shouldn’t exist, someone may have stolen your identity. Signing up for credit monitoring can help you catch fraud early, put a stop to it and start recovering your identity ASAP.
Where to Report Scams
If you do come across a scam, you should report it to the FTC and contact the attorney general in your state. Cases involving education funds and student loans can be reported to the U.S. Department of Education Office of Inspector General.