By Liz Barton, Vice President; and Leslie Fogarty, Vice President, Information Protection and Privacy, Bank of America
dentity theft is one of the fastest growing crimes against consumers, and it can affect anyone, including college students. College students are especially vulnerable because many do not understand the importance of keeping their personal information and documents safe. According to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), 29 percent of identity theft victims are between the ages of 18 and 29.1 Young adults are a prime target for identity thieves because they are likely to have a clean credit report and are less likely to monitor their credit history on a regular basis.
Students at Risk
For many students, college is a time of firsts—their first time living away from home, as well as their first time managing financial responsibility, including establishing financial accounts and credit cards. The Sprint 2007 Student Monitor reports that 4 of every 10 students have a credit card in their own name.2
It is critical that students understand how to manage their accounts properly to minimize the risk of identity theft. Students are at risk particularly with Social Security numbers (SSNs). Many colleges use SSNs as student identification numbers, which are required in many places all over campus, including cafeterias, bookstores, and recreation centers. In addition, many schools allow professors to post grades using SSNs, thereby exposing a student’s personal information. In a recent national survey by Impulse Research for Chubb Group Insurance Companies, 48 percent of students have had their grades posted using their SSNs.3
Identity theft can have a severe impact on a student’s financial future. An 18-year-old college freshman at Illinois State University learned he was a victim of identity theft when he was turned down for a student loan.4 Another young person had his identity stolen when he was 12 years old. Now a college graduate, he still battles with the theft of his identity, unable to obtain loans to buy a car or a house. It has been difficult for him even to rent an apartment or set up utilities. 5 Victims can spend a significant amount of time trying to recover the damage to their credit reports and reputations caused by identity theft, taking months or even years to restore their good names. As a result, students can miss out on job opportunities and/or be denied loans for mortgages, cars, and education.
Ways to Prevent Identity Theft
Campus police and other law enforcement can help students protect their identities by sharing the following important prevention tips.
Credit Reports: Get credit reports regularly (you are entitled to a free credit report each year from all three credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion). Keep an eye out for fraudulent accounts opened in your name. Even a misspelled name or wrong address could be a sign of trouble.
Shredders: Shred all papers that have identifiable information using a cross-cut shredder before placing them in the trash. Many identity thieves get personal information, such as account numbers, from documents that have been carelessly discarded. Shred all papers that have identifiable information on them, such as bank statements, phone bills, medical statements, and preapproved credit card offers.
Unauthorized Charges: Watch statements for unauthorized charges. If you notice any suspicious activity, report it to your financial institution right away.
Secure Information: Keep identity information, such as your SSN or credit or debit card numbers, private and in a secure location. Do not give such information out over the Internet or on the phone unless you trust the company and you have initiated the call.
Signature: Consider writing “See ID” on the back of credit and debit cards, so if they are ever stolen, thieves will not be able to use them as easily. Put your picture on your card if your financial institution offers this service.
List of Numbers: Keep a list of all credit/debit card numbers, as well as phone numbers to call, if you need to report a lost or stolen card.
Mail: Check and empty your postal mailbox every day. Often, preapproved credit card offers contain personal information and have “special offer” codes that anyone can use to misrepresent themselves as you when calling the toll-free number. Be sure to shred these offers to safely dispose of your information.
- Always lock dorm rooms. Do not leave doors propped open for easy access.
- Never leave personal information in writing or on your voicemail.
- Do not share room keys or access cards with anyone. Report all lost or stolen keys or access cards immediately.
- Always secure personal information on desktop or laptop computers. The best way to protect information on your computer is with an “encrypted” password. Create passwords using a mix of numbers and letters, both upper- and lowercase. An example of this is “Tulip6Rose.”
- Secure laptop computers with a cable lock or place them in a locked closet and out of view when not in use.
- Use firewall and antivirus programs on your computer, especially if your computer is connected to the Internet 24 hours a day.
- Never download or open files sent by people you do not know.
- Do not click on hyperlinks or provide personal information (such as account numbers or SSNs) to strangers.
- Keep antivirus programs up to date weekly, and apply all recommended updates to your computer’s operating system at least once a month.
Reporting Identity Fraud
If you believe you are a victim of identity fraud, you should take the following four steps to start restoring your good name.
Fraud Alert: Contact one or more of the consumer credit reporting agencies. The contacted company is required to contact the other two bureaus. When you contact the credit bureau, tell them you believe you are an identity theft victim and ask them to place a “fraud alert” on your file. This will prevent a thief from opening additional accounts using your personal information and doing more damage to your credit. Review your credit reports carefully to make sure there are no fraudulent accounts or balances.
Affected Accounts: Close the accounts that you know or believe to have been tampered with or opened fraudulently. Creditors can include credit card companies, utilities, banks, and other lenders. When you call each creditor, ask to speak to someone in the security or fraud department. Open new accounts using new personal identification numbers (PINs) and passwords that only you know.
Police Report: File a report with your campus police or the police in the community where the identity theft took place. Once you have filed a police report, get a copy for your records in case your bank, credit card issuer, or other creditors need proof of the crime. Having a copy of the police report can help protect you legally when dealing with creditors, even if the police never catch the criminal.
FTC Complaint: Finally, you should file a complaint with the FTC, either by phone or by mail:
- Call the Identity Theft Hotline (toll-free), 1-877-IDTHEFT
- Write the Identity Theft Clearinghouse, Federal Trade Commission, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20580
Additional Web Resources for Students
1Identity Theft Data Clearinghouse, Identity Theft Victim Complaint Data, January–December 2006, Federal Trade Commission, February 7, 2007, http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/microsites/idtheft/downloads/clearinghouse_2006.pdf (accessed September 6, 2008), 7.
2Cited in Student Financial Handbook: An Easy-to-Use Guide to Managing Your Money, Bank of America, 2008, http://www.bankofamerica.com/studentbanking/pdf/student_handbook.pdf (accessed September 6, 2008), 31.
3Cited in Lucy Lazarony, “College Students Are Prime Targets for Identity Thieves,” Bankrate.com, October 28, 2002, http://www.bankrate.com/brm/news/cc/20021028a.asp (accessed September 2, 2008).
5Brigitte Yuille, “Child Identity Theft: A Victim’s Story,” Bankrate.com, January 3, 2007, http://www.bankrate.com/brm/news/debt/20070103_child_identity_theft_f1.asp (accessed September 2, 2008).