Research and Statistics

Protect your computer — and your identity — on campus


Students heading to college need to take precautions to protect their computers and smartphones, and the sensitive information they contain.

The content on this page is accurate as of the posting date; however, some of our partner offers may have expired. Please review our list of best credit cards, or use our CardMatch™ tool to find cards matched to your needs.

As you pack your computer, smartphone and other devices for college, you need to take precautions to protect not only your devices but also all the sensitive information stored on them.

“This generation going to college is very connected with smartphones, tablets, their laptops,” says Becky Frost, senior manager of consumer education with credit reporting agency Experian’s Protect My ID program. “They’re likely to be banking online. They have all these apps on their phones. If that device is lost or heaven forbid stolen, it’s an easy way to steal that person’s identity.”

Thefts of such devices are increasing. About 3.1 million Americans were the victims of smartphone theft in 2013, according to Consumer Reports’ Annual State of the Net survey — nearly double the 1.6 million the company projected in 2012.

Despite the thefts, most people are cavalier about protecting their data. About 70 percent of people surveyed do not password protect their mobile devices, Frost says. “If they’re not protecting their devices, they’re not protecting their identity fully.”

Don’t think you’ve used your credit card (or your parent’s) or Social Security number on your laptop? Think again. Did you fill out your college application, essay or financial application on your computer? What about your iTunes account or online banking account? All of that data is stored somewhere within your system. Just deleting information from your Recycle Bin isn’t enough — computer thieves are experts at undeleting such files. (See 10 ways students can protect against identity theft.)

Data breaches are increasing too. “Over 351 million data records have been exposed due to security breaches over the past three years, and schools are constantly losing laptops,” says Todd Feinman, CEO of Identity Finder, a company that makes software designed to foil computer security breaches by digitally shredding personal information stored on your computer. Those numbers are up from the 236 million records exposed in data breaches between 2005 and 2008. “The problem is getting worse at an accelerated rate,” Feinman says.

College campuses are prime territory for thieves. “College is an attractive place for laptop theft because there’s probably more laptops there than in any other similar geographic area, says Guy Antinozzi, co-author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Campus Safety” and a career law enforcement professional. “You have students that are of an age that they don’t think bad things can happen to them.”

Welcome to the real world

Studying at the library, cafeteria, coffee shop or dorm room is not the same as studying at home. “The local hangouts, coffee houses, libraries where students typically get together after class for food and drink, it’s very common for students to walk away from their computers,” Feinman says. “The truth is, they shouldn’t be leaving their computer unattended anywhere.”

Someone might be able to get information from your computer without even stealing it, Feinman says.  “If you’re in Starbucks, don’t walk away from your computer,” he says. “It takes 15 seconds for a hacker to come over, stick a USB drive in and download your information. They don’t even need to steal your computer to get your information.”

Some of the danger comes from your fellow students. “A lot of potential thieves are students,” Feinman says. “A lot of theft comes from curious students wondering ‘Can I do that?'”

Remember, your dorm or apartment room is not the same as your bedroom at home either. You may know your roommates, but do you know your roommates’ friends?

“College students tend to have an open door policy about who goes in and out of their living space,” Frost says. “Keep your dorm room locked even when you’re home. ID theft is a crime of opportunity. If somebody is able to come in and pick up a bank statement or Social Security information, that could cause serious damage to your ID.”

Value of lost data

Those thefts are costly — not just in terms of replacing the devices but in replacing the data. A 2009 survey conducted by the Ponemon Institute and sponsored by Intel titled, “The Billion Dollar Lost Laptop Problem” projected that the average cost of one lost business laptop is $49,246 including lost data, lost productivity and other expenses. As a college student, your data and time are probably not worth as much, but consequences of a lost device still can be high.

Think of the hassle of canceling your credit card and any auto payments connected to that card, Feinman says.

And what about your homework or your portfolio of work in your major? “Sometimes students will keep a significant amount of work on their computer,” says Kevin Lanning, interim chief information security officer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Say an architecture or graphic art student has their portfolio on their computer and that computer goes missing,” Lanning says. “You need that work at a first job interview.”

Make sure you have a copy of your data in a safe place, ideally in a different physical location, he says. “Students need to remain vigilant,” Lanning says. “Better to prevent a theft than have to recover from a problem.”

See related:  8 keys to safe credit, debit card use on campus, Have I fallen prey to identity theft? , Familiar fraud: When family and friends steal your identity

Editorial Disclaimer

The editorial content on this page is based solely on the objective assessment of our writers and is not driven by advertising dollars. It has not been provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products from our partners.

What’s up next?

In Research and Statistics

Poll: People scale back card use in changed economy

A new survey suggests the financially fit are surviving the economic downturn, but others are not.

See more stories
Credit Card Rate Report
Cash Back

Questions or comments?

Contact us

Editorial corrections policies

Learn more