College Identity Theft: A Growing Problem

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College students have plenty to worry about, from living on their own for the first time to balancing their coursework to stretching a tight budget and staying on top of financial aid deadlines. What falls through the cracks for most students is the threat of identity theft. Many students think this issue won't affect them — after all, students don’t usually have much money or credit, so why would they be targeted by fraudsters?

The truth is that identity theft is not just about stealing someone’s money or assets. It can also be about stealing their name and reputation or using aspects of their identity to create a fake persona that will be used in perpetuity. Having no credit can give scammers a blank slate to play with.

Identity theft, in all its forms, is an unfortunately common crime. In 2018, more than 14 million Americans fell victim to some kind of identity fraud, resulting in roughly $1.7 billion in out-of-pocket costs for victims. That's why everyone — college students included — need to learn about common forms of identity theft and how to protect themselves.

What Is Identity Theft and How Does It Occur?

Identity theft is the act of someone stealing sensitive information and using it to identify as someone else. Information that allows criminals to do this can include a social security number, driver’s license, birth certificate, or any other personal information. The thief uses this information to open credit accounts, take out loans, apply for jobs, or commit other fraudulent acts in the victim’s name. Identity theft crimes vary widely, from simply using a victim's online account to buy merchandise, to fully adopting a fake persona and living under an assumed name.

The consequences of identity theft can be dire. The victim could be left with a large amount of debt in their name that they don't even know exists until they are denied a job or loan. It can take years of effort for a victim to repair their credit damage. This can be especially detrimental to a recent college grad who's just starting their new adult life, only to realize their credit is ruined and many of their next steps in life will be difficult to achieve.

How College Students Can Become Vulnerable

For a thief to steal someone’s identity, they must first obtain the necessary information which allows them to “become” someone else. How vigilantly a person protects their information can make an identity thief's job easy or difficult.

Pre-Approved Credit Card Offers

College students commonly receive pre-approved credit card offers. Those mass-mailed forms usually include partial information, such as a name or address, making it a fantastic opportunity to steal a person’s identity. If the recipient is not interested in the offer and simply throws away the form, identity thieves can pick the offer out of the trash can, fill in the rest of the blanks on the form, and send it in to fraudulently open a credit card in the victim's name.

You can opt-out of prescreened credit offers by going to

Banking Accounts Need to Be Closely Tracked

Identity theft also commonly occurs when thieves get their hands on personal banking account information, such as a checking or savings account statement. Anyone who does not keep close tabs on their account is at risk of incurring fraudulent charges through this scam.

Often, the thief steals money in small increments that won't trigger any alerts from the bank. If you're only checking your account balances, rather than individual transactions, you might not notice $5 here and $20 there, but those small amounts build up over time. The longer those fraudulent charges go unnoticed, the more difficult it will be to get your money back.

Social Security Numbers Used Frequently by Schools

Another danger to college students is their Social Security number. College courses may require a student to use their Social Security number to log into websites or sign up for school services. The university may also use that number as an identifying number in the administration office.

The more often you use it, the easier it is to forget how careful you need to be with your Social Security number. Criminals can obtain the number through subpar network security or even through simple methods like physically watching a student enter the number on a website.

Devices Can Be Stolen in Classrooms or Dorms

Laptops and tablets are required for just about every college course, but what if that computer is stolen? What security measures do you have on your devices? How hard would it be for a thief to nose around in your files? Most students, as with most adults, use their computers to access online banking, pay bills, order merchandise, and communicate with others. If personal account information is stored on the hard drive, such as sensitive PDFs or saved logins on banking sites, the thief has instant access to the information they need to assume that student's identity.

Of course, identity theft has been around since well before laptops became a common classroom item. Students may also overlook other common targets for identity-stealing criminals, such as a wallet, purse, or backpack. College students living in student housing have the added danger of frequent parties bringing strangers into close proximity with your belongings. These students should exercise cautious security measures, even in their home spaces, to prevent the kind of petty theft that can turn into identity fraud.

How College Students Can Protect Themselves From Identity Theft

The best way to deal with the prospect of identity theft is to avoid it by employing safe practices in everyday life. Here are some tips and best practices to prevent identity theft.

Don’t let mail pile up where anyone could gain access to it. Ensure anything that goes into the trash doesn't contain useful information. To be safe, it's best to shred or tear documents into small pieces, especially bank statements, credit card offers, or anything else with an account number or social security number. Remember prescription drug containers, too, as they usually have an account number and other personal information printed on the label.

Always log out of secure sites, such as online banking, before exiting the browser. Use secure passwords that avoid obvious numbers such as date of birth, phone numbers, anniversaries, or addresses. Using a long string of numbers and letters in a random combination is best to avoid hacking. Password managers can help you securely keep track of multiple secure passwords.

Never store personal information, usernames, or passwords in an easily identifiable location on your computer’s hard drive. If you must write them down somewhere, make sure the document is stored in a safe location, such as a lockbox.

Ensure that the web sites you use for making purchases or entering information are secure. Check the URL closely, look for "https://" and the logo indicating a Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) certificate. Sites with these protections use encryption, data integrity, and authentication to ensure that anything you do on the site is secure.

Be wary of emails “phishing” for information. Learn how to spot these phishing emails, which involve tricking victims into entering information on a false site that replicates a legitimate site. Any information you enter will be sent straight to a scammer, and you may inadvertently install malware on your computer, as well.

Be very, very careful about giving out your social security number. There are instances when you will need to give it out, such as when getting a job or filing for financial aid, but these instances are few and far between. Whenever possible, use a driver’s license as an identifier instead of your social security card. Keep your social security card at home in a safe place. The same applies to a student ID card if it contains your social security number or any other sensitive identifiers.

What to Do If You Suspect You Have Become a Victim of Identity Theft

Identity theft isn't just an inconvenience or a detriment to your credit rating, it's a federal crime. According to the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act of 1998, it is a federal crime if someone "knowingly transfers or uses, without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person with the intent to commit, or to aid or abet, any unlawful activity that constitutes a violation of the Federal law, or that constitutes a felony under any applicable State or local law."

If you suspect that your identity has been compromised, the first step is to notify all your financial institutions that may have been affected. Any card issuers should be first on your list of institutions to call. Ensure that all accounts are frozen or closed immediately, and ask that any new accounts be flagged for possible fraud.

Next, notify local law enforcement of the crime. They will be able to advise you of further steps and begin an investigation. You should also create an Identity Theft Report with the Federal Trade Commission.

Contact the three credit reporting bureaus and notify them of the theft of your identity. They can put a timestamped fraud alert in your file that prevents any further fraud from negatively affect your credit rating. You may also consider locking your credit or imposing a security freeze, which will prevent scammers from opening up new lines of credit with your information.

Once law enforcement, financial institutions, and credit reporting bureaus are all aware of the fraud, then you can begin disputing any fraudulent charges in your account.

The Bottom Line

The time spent going to college is, for most students, one of the best and most memorable periods in their life. Make sure it is memorable for the right reasons, however, and not because of the trauma and suffering from identity theft. Be vigilant about protecting your information and never assume that such a crime cannot happen to you.