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Research and Statistics

10 ways students can protect against identity theft


Campuses are often a young adult’s first step away from the safety of home, so they need to raise their technological guard.

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Students heading off to college need to know that college campuses are a hotbed for computer, smartphone, credit card and identity theft. At home, if your computer disappeared from your room, the odds are high that your siblings or parents heisted it. At college, it’s a different story. Based on advice from experts, here are 10 ways students can protect themselves against computer and identity theft:

See related: 8 keys to safe credit, debit card use on campus, Are schools putting your child’s information at risk?

1.Lock your door.

This is the single most important way to keep your computer and other devices safe, according to experts. “College students treat door locking like it’s such an inconvenience,” says Guy Antinozzi, co-author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Campus Safety” and a career law enforcement officer. “They’ll carry everything with them except their key or access card. Put the key or card on a lanyard and you’re good to go.”

2. Remove unnecessary personal info from your computer.

“If you filled out an application and you put your Social Security number in it, delete it after you’re done,” says Todd Feinman, founder and former CEO of Identity Finder. “If you need the information, encrypt it with a password.”

3. Install a tracking program.

Programs such as Prey and Absolute LoJack will track your devices and help you and/or the police locate the stolen property. Such programs also allow you to digitally and remotely wipe your devices so a thief can’t use them. “Absolute LoJack’s theft recovery solutions will aid in the recovery of your stolen laptop, smartphone or tablet and return to it you,” says Kate Brow, former spokeswoman for Absolute Software, which makes Absolute LoJack. “Your data is protected. Your device gets back to you, where it belongs.”

4. Log out.

Research shows that people tend to leave their phone apps open to their accounts when they’re done, says Becky Frost, former senior manager of consumer education with credit reporting agency Experian’s Protect My ID program. The time you save in the short run could cost you if your device falls into the wrong hands.

“That 20 seconds you take to type in your username and password each time can save you a lot of time and frustration dealing with ID theft,” Frost says.

5. Don’t reveal too much personal information on social networking sites.

Sites such as Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and others may ask for your birth date, but birth dates are a boon to identity thieves, Feinman warns. “Your full date of birth shouldn’t be shared,” he says. “It certainly shouldn’t be public information on social media sites.”

6. Don’t be so quick to give out your Social Security number.

“A bank needs your Social Security number,” Feinman says. But other entities that ask for it don’t necessarily have to have it. “Push back on any company that requires a Social Security number,” he says. “Ask why they need it. If they can’t say why, don’t give it. Find out if there is another piece of information or something else you can give.”

For example, your doctor needs only your insurance ID number, he says. A cellphone company probably would be willing to take a $100 deposit (borrow the money from your parents if you don’t have it) and then return it after you show a good payment history over several months, he says, in lieu of providing of Social Security number.

7. Start shredding – digital and paper records.

Use software such as Identity Finder to search and preview the personal data (yours and anyone else’s) on your computer, including credit card numbers, Social Security numbers, birth dates, tax returns and financial aid documents. You then have the option to digitally shred, encrypt or redact that information, depending on your needs. Students can also find free digital shredders online.

And don’t forget real shredders, Frost says. “Now is the time to get one,” she says. “They’re very affordable – look for back-to-school sales.”

8. Be smart about passwords.

“Students should refrain from sharing passwords, should use strong passwords, use different passwords for different accounts and change passwords regularly,” says Steven Toporoff, a now-retired attorney, formerly with the Federal Trade Commission’s Division of Identity and Privacy Protection.

Make it easy for you but tough on crooks: Instead of using a real word, pick a phrase and then create an algorithm such as using the first and last letter of each word in the phrase, says Kevin Lanning, chief information security officer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

9. Stay up-to-date.

Download the latest updates to your computer’s operating system and anti-virus software, Feinman says. And read the privacy guidelines that come with smartphone apps and computer software before you download them, he says.

Any privacy deal breakers are up to your level of comfort and the value you feel you’re getting in return for the information you’re giving, he says. But you should be concerned with a company that keeps your personal information indefinitely with no plan to securely erase it; gives or sells your personal information to third parties; or has no secure method for storing personal information, he says.

10. Vote with your wallet.

If a business or other entity allows your private information to be compromised, don’t purchase products there, Feinman says. “You have choices as a consumer,” he says.

At the least, consider waiting after a reported breach to give the company time to upgrade security, he says. “There will be a period of time when the breached company is dealing with legal issues and reputation repair – during this time they might be upgrading security,” he says. “However, it would make sense to wait some time [at least three to six months] before expecting a more secure approach to storing your personal information.”

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