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College students are prime targets for identity thieves

You casually toss an avalanche of credit card offers into the trash. You readily flash your Social Security number all over campus. And you don't balance your checkbook or keep receipts.

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A college student can be an identity thief's dream.

"They're not thinking of the dangers of the world around them," says Jay Foley, director of consumer and victim services at the Identity Theft Resource Center. "They're still in the 'I am invincible' stage of their lives."

How blasé are college students when it comes to money matters and privacy? Check out the results of a recent national survey of college students by Impulse Research for Chubb Group Insurance Companies.

  • Forty-nine percent of college students receive credit card applications on a daily or weekly basis. Almost 30 percent of students throw out card applications without destroying them.

  • Nearly 30 percent of students rarely, if ever, reconcile their credit card and checking account balances.

  • Forty-eight percent of students have had grades posted by Social Security number.

All of these factors make college students vulnerable to identity theft. And that's the last thing they need.

Graduating into a depressing job market when you're up to your eyes in debt is tough enough. Toss in thousands of dollars of additional unauthorized debt and a wrecked credit rating courtesy of an identity thief and it becomes an absolute nightmare.

"If you're $50,000 in debt and having a hard time of it, imagine trying to explain away another $50,000," Foley says.

And the cold reality of identity theft is this -- the victim cleans up the mess.

"It's almost as if they've been assaulted," Foley says. "It is a long and tedious process trying to rebuild."

The fastest growing crime in the United States
Identity theft is the fastest growing crime in America, with 900,000 new victims each year. And in today's information age, nobody's immune.

Foley knows of an 18-year-old college freshman at Illinois State who learned he was a victim of identity theft when he was turned down for a student loan.

The best way to minimize your chances of being a victim is to keep close tabs on all of your personal financial information.

Let's start with credit cards. Pre-approved credit card offers flood student mailboxes every week. Whatever you do, don't toss them aside and forget about them. An identity thief could pick up a stray application and apply for a card in your name.

"If you get pre-approved applications for credit, shred them. Burn them, do something," says Susan Grant, director of the National Fraud Information Center.

Pass by all those tables tossing out freebies in exchange for credit card applications. They're too risky.

"If you really want a neat T-shirt, go down and buy one," Foley says.

Watch your step when applying for credit cards on the Web. There are plenty of phony card sites to avoid. Check to see if the Web site is connected to a legitimate credit card company before applying.

Monitor your credit card bills and bank statements carefully. Did you make all those purchases? If not, contact your bank or credit card company immediately.

"Take a look at bank statements and credit card statements as soon as you get them," Grant says. "Pick up mail promptly and stop it if you're going to be away."

Store your personal financial records in a file cabinet with a lock or in a small, fireproof safe. Shred any private paperwork such as health insurance forms and bank statements that you don't want to keep.

Don't leave mail lying around your dorm or apartment or let it build up in your mail slot.

"There's a lot of opportunity for someone to pick up mail that was meant for someone else," says Mary Ann Avnet, vice president at Chubb & Son.

Protect your digits
Keep close tabs on your Social Security number. This is a biggie.

"If somebody gets a hold of your Social Security number it could have more far-reaching consequences," Grant says. "Someone could assume your identity for all kinds of purposes and really cause you all kinds of grief."

Some imposters rack up criminal charges in a victim's name on top of car loans, credit card charges and other bills. Having someone's name and Social Security number makes it easy.

Trying to minimize who can peek at your Social Security number on campus is going to be difficult. Lots of colleges use Social Security numbers as student ID numbers. And you're asked to show your student ID just about everywhere, bookstores, cafeterias -- you name it. Some professors post grades by Social Security number and request that a Social Security number be placed on all term papers.

"At most colleges, the Social Security number is the universal identifier," Avnet says. "And it was never meant to be that way."

The best advice for students is to be as stingy with their Social Security numbers as they possibly can.

Request a randomly generated student ID number instead. And if you can't get the school to give you a new student ID number, you can at least approach individual professors about using a random number on term papers and test postings.

If your Social Security number is on your student ID, make sure you know where it is at all times.

"Be very careful that you just don't leave your student ID lying around where someone else can copy it," Avnet says.

Before giving out your Social Security number, always ask why it's needed. When a picture ID is required, use your driver's license instead.

For more tips on protecting your identity, check out this article from Bankrate.com.

Remember, no one can protect you from identity theft but you.

"It's out there. You have to take responsibility for yourself and for protecting your identity," Avnet says.

If you think someone may have stolen your identity, this guide from Bankrate.com will show you how to clear your name as quickly as possible.


-- Posted: Oct. 28, 2002




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