In an age of Facebook, Twitter and other ways to share everything in their lives online with the world, college students and young adults are more likely to be targeted by identity thieves than any other age group, according to a study by Identity Theft 911, a Web site that helps prevent fraud.
College students are more vulnerable, and with the average college senior graduating with $4,100 in credit card debt and $24,651 in student loan debt, they have a lot to lose in terms of their financial futures.
"We have to understand that identities are evergreen, they're currency. They're like wine -- they get better with age," said Adam Levin, chairman and co-founder of Identity Theft 911.
As stronger credit histories are built as students age, they're more valuable to criminals, Levin told me in a telephone interview. From getting a mortgage on a victim's house to simply buying a few things with a stolen credit card number, online identity theft can lead to a lot of trouble, he said.
Hacking into a university computer system is just the beginning, as students then log into that system and make any personal information on their laptops vulnerable.
"You think you're downloading Madonna. You're actually downloading Madonna and Ivan," Levin said of hackers in the Ukraine.
Beyond such basic identity theft prevention tactics such as not carrying your Social Security card with you to not giving out any personal information if you haven't initiated the call, Levin's company has these tips for students who want to protect their identity from being stolen and keep their financial future bright:
- Use a "strong" password on online account log-ins that is composed of numbers, upper- and lower-case letters and symbols. Just be sure to remember it.
- Every time you take a Facebook quiz, you enter into a deal with one of Facebook's outside developers, who then has access to some personal information, such as your birthday if it's publicly known. Hackers have sent messages to friends, saying that the user is in trouble and needs a wire transfer to get out of jail, the hospital or another country. Don't fall for it.
- Treat your laptops as if you know it's going to be stolen. Add the prompt that requires a password upon startup, and shut it down for the night when not in use. Remove sensitive data such as student loan forms with your Social Security number. Back up data.
- Use firewalls and anti-virus software, and be sure to accept the updates.
- Make sure your mailbox is secure. Don't attach your outgoing mail to the dorm mailbox, but put it in a U.S. Postal Service mailbox.
- You can check your credit report from all three credit reporting agencies for free once a year. Do it and check for inaccuracies or evidence of identity theft. Visit AnnualCreditReport.com.
- Create and follow a budget. It will help you manage your money and not fall into unwanted debt.
- Avoid carrying a balance on your credit cards and falling into credit card debt.
Then you can get back to figuring out which party to attend Thursday night.
Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. Reach him at www.AaronCrowe.net