ID Theft Resources

A Student’s Guide on How to Help Protect Against Identity Theft

By Steve Symanovich, a Symantec employee

Your college career is supposed to be about finding yourself and forging your identity—not having it stolen. But, identity theft affected nearly 15 million Americans in 2017, based on an online survey of 5,389 U.S. adults conducted for Symantec by The Harris Poll, January 2018.

There was a victim of identity theft every 2 seconds in 2017, the same survey found. Many of those victims could be college students.

The risk you face? A thief who steals your identity can commit crimes in your name or prevent you from getting that coveted job after graduation.

It’s smart to take steps to learn how to help protect yourself against identity theft. This guide can help. Think of it as “How to Help Protect Against Identity Theft 101.”

An identity-theft definition

What is identity theft? Identity theft occurs when someone steals your personal information — such as your name, address, Social Security number, date of birth, and more — and commits fraud in your name.

Criminals may use your personal data to take over your bank account or open new credit cards and run up debt, all while pretending to be you. They might file fake tax returns, buy or rent property, or commit a host of other crimes using your information.

As a college student, you have plenty to do without having to worry about identity theft. But, like a looming final exam, identity theft isn’t going away. Learning how to help protect yourself—and your financial future—is fast becoming a required course.

What’s in ‘A Student’s Guide’

Here’s what you’ll find in this guide:

  • Facts about identity theft
  • How students can help protect their identity
  • How identity theft happens—from low-tech to high-tech techniques

We’ve also included two additional sections:

  • A Teacher’s Guide on How to Help Protect Against Identity Theft
  • A Campus Police Officer’s Guide on How to Help Protect Against Identity Theft

Facts about identity theft

Here are two things you should know about identity theft: It’s big and it can affect your future.

How big? Consider these statistics:

  • In 2017, over 140 million hours were spent by identity theft victims trying to solve their issue, based on an online survey of 540 U.S. adults who experienced ID theft in 2017, conducted for Symantec by The Harris Poll, January 2018.
  • Nearly 15 billion dollars were stolen from identity theft victims in 2017, according to the same survey.

Identity theft and your future

As for your future, you came to college to prepare for it. But if you become a victim of identity theft, you could spend hours, days, or more dealing with the mess. You also may face obstacles to starting a career and becoming financially independent.

That’s because when an identity thief commits fraud in your name, it can become part of your record. Your financial history—including an identity thief’s bogus dealings—will likely appear in your credit file. Credit bureaus store that data, and a credit file showing financial misdeeds can lead to a low credit score. A low credit score can make it hard to qualify for a variety of financial products and certain life necessities.

Lenders and other businesses typically check your credit report before deciding whether to lend you money or make other big decisions involving your future. Here are a few ways a damaged credit file can hurt you.

  • You may have a hard time getting approved for a credit card or loan.
  • You may not get a job offer from a potential employer.
  • You could have trouble renting an apartment.
  • You may be unable to get a cell phone account.

No one can prevent all identity theft. But you can take steps to help minimize the risk, and those start will helping to protect your personal information.

How students can help protect their identity

As a college student, you probably have personal information in a lot of places — in your computer, cell phone, academic file, wallet, even on the top of your desk. The goal is to protect this information.

Here’s how to help protect against identity theft from happening:

Guard your numbers. You have a lot of them — credit and debit card numbers, driver’s license number, PINs. Your Social Security number is your most valuable identifier and one of the most prized by identity thieves. Share these numbers only when absolutely necessary, and only when there’s a legitimate reason to provide them. It’s a good idea to memorize your important numbers and never leave them in plain view of someone else.

Avoid public Wi-Fi. Public Wi-Fi networks are not secure. That means that when you go to a café to do work on your computer, someone can intercept what you’re looking at on the web. That might include your email, browsing history and passwords. Your defense? It’s always smart to use a virtual private network. A VPN creates an encrypted connection between your computer and the VPN server. As a result, a nearby hacker can’t intercept your information. If you’re tempted to perform a financial transaction—like, buying something on the web—a VPN is essential.

Beware of shoulder surfing. Always be aware of your surroundings. Take time to make sure someone isn’t glancing over your shoulder while you enter your PIN number at an ATM or key in personal information into your cell phone. Think twice about providing a credit card number over the phone if someone is within listening distance.

Don’t overshare. Identity thieves often seek to bundle your personal information. What you post on social networks can be a rich source of information. Identity thieves can glean details from your life that could help answer security questions on websites—like, “Where were your born?” or “What’s your favorite food?”

Keep personal information in a safe place. It’s easy to leave a credit card or driver’s license lying on your desk. But colleges are social places. It’s hard to predict who might pass through your living space and potentially steal the information on those cards. It could be a friend, or a friend of a friend, or an out-of-town guest of your roommate.

Shred documents that contain personal information. A paper shredder may not have the same college appeal as, say, a refrigerator in your room. But it’s essential for shredding papers that include your personal information. For instance, you probably receive credit card offers in the mail. Don’t just toss them in the trash, where someone could retrieve them. Shred them right away.

Protect your computer from malware. Malware—short for malicious software—includes computer viruses and spyware. It can get installed on your computer or mobile device and you might not realize it. Identity thieves use malware to steal personal information and commit fraud. What to do? Install security software from a reputable company. It’s also essential to keep all your software programs up to date. Another precaution: Back up your information in case a hacker corrupts your computer.

Get savvy about online scams. Identity thieves may try to trick you into clicking on links that install malware on your computer. Or they might set up fake websites offering amazing “deals” to lure you into providing your credit card information. Stick with reputable websites. Never click on a link or an attachment from someone you don’t know.

Keep track of your credit history. The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act allows you to get a free credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus annually. This is where you can look to see if anyone has opened an account in your name. If you see something suspicious, you can take appropriate actions. You can get your free reports at annualcreditreport.com.

Use strong passwords on all your devices. A strong password includes letters, numbers and symbols. It’s a good idea to have separate passwords for all your devices, including computer, tablet, and cellphone. Never share your password with someone else. And remember to change it periodically. Or consider using a reputable password manager. A passport manager is a software application with strong security features that manages and stores your passwords.

Mind your bank cards. Notify your bank or credit card company if you misplace your credit or ATM card. They’ll likely cancel your card and send you a replacement with a new number. Usually they will review recent transactions with you to identify any suspicious activity. As a general rule, check your bank and credit card statements regularly to make sure all activity is legitimate.

A Teacher’s Guide to How to Help Protect Against Identity Theft

As a teacher, you could have the opportunity to help protect students from identity theft.

It’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the information in A Student’s Guide on How to Help Protect Against Identity Theft. It will help you understand how identity theft happens in college. And you can help guide students in how to minimize the risk.

A Teacher’s Guide includes a list of resources that you can share with your students to help them keep their identities safe.

Here’s a checklist of ways you can help.

  • Encourage students to practice smart online habits. Let students know, for instance, that not all networks on campus may be secure. If your course requires purchasing materials online, remind students to use a secure network or virtual private network (VPN). Discuss the risk of sharing personal information when students work collaboratively on projects.
  • Help keep your students’ numbers safe. It’s a good idea never to use a student’s Social Security number as official identifier in coursework or assignments. A student’s Social Security number is a key piece of information for identity thieves.
  • If appropriate, let students know there are key ways to help protect their identity. These range from checking their credit reports for suspicious accounts to never using a library or public computer to provide personal information.
  • Find out if your college offers any presentations or workshops on identity-theft protection. Keep a list of available resources handy.
  • Remind students to lock their computers and protect them with strong passwords. In general, students should never leave their computer where someone can snoop for personal information or steal it.
  • Finally, it’s important to remind students that protecting their identities is important to their college career and future. Your identity is one of your most important assets.

A Campus Police Officer's Guide on How to Help Protect Against Identity Theft

As a college law enforcement official, you know that your job is to keep the campus safe and secure. Helping students protect themselves against identity theft may be a crucial part of that.

Here’s a check list of things you might do:

  • Be familiar with A Student’s Guide to Help Protect Against Identity Theft. It will help you understand how identity theft happens in college, and how you can help students minimize the risk.
  • Encourage safe practices: Consider reminding students that campus theft often involves the loss of personal information—whether it involves a wallet, computer or personal documents.
  • Consider a policy for protecting lost devices, such as computers and cellphones that have been turned in to the campus police department. Establish a protocol for making sure the devices get back to their rightful owners.
  • Become an active partner in protecting against identity theft. Develop and distribute materials about what students can do avoid identity theft.
  • Encourage students to lock their dorm rooms or apartments when they’re away.

See also: A Student's Guide on What to Do If You're a Victim of Identity Theft

Editor’s note: This content was lightly edited and updated on April 16, 2018.

Symantec Corporation, the world’s leading cyber security company, allows organizations, governments, and people to secure their most important data wherever it lives. More than 50 million people and families rely on Symantec’s Norton and LifeLock comprehensive digital safety platform to help protect their personal information, devices, home networks, and identities.

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