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17 ways to avoid ID theft on campus

Think you're safe from identity theft on campus? Think again.

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College students face about the same risk of having their identity stolen as the average person -- roughly one in 30.

"Just because of the way a campus environment operates," says Lynne Strang, vice president of communications for the American Financial Services Association, an industry association of credit card companies and financial institutions. "You're living in close quarters with other students, where people are coming in and out.

"There's a lot of freedom and a lot of opportunity if you are not vigilant," she says.

Actual incidents of identity theft have decreased slightly in the last year, but thieves are stealing more. The average take: $6,383, according to a January report by Javelin Strategy and Research and the Better Business Bureau. What's almost as bad for students: It takes an average of 40 hours to straighten out the mess, according to the study.

The stakes can be high for college students, says John Ulzheimer, co-author of the upcoming book, "Surviving Identity Theft." With employers now routinely checking credit reports, an undetected identity theft during the college years can put the brakes on launching that new career.

For most students, the threat of identity theft is probably pretty low on the priority list. "College student have a lot on their minds," says Strang.

They'd better think about it. "There are a lot of things college students can do to reduce that risk," she says. In addition, staying vigilant and catching it early can make it a lot easier to resolve.

While nothing is fool-proof, you can reduce your chances of becoming a victim just by being aware and a little more careful. Here are some things to try:

17 ways to short-circuit ID theft on campus
1. Guard your mail.
2. Use U.S. Postal mailbox for outgoing mail.
3. Opt out of preapproved credit card offers.
4. Deep-six the junk mail.
5. Limit number of credit or debit cards
6. Find a safe place for valuables.
7. Keep financial papers private.
8. Act quickly.
9. If SSN is student ID number, request a change.
10. Get your credit report regularly.
11. When you're out, keep your purse or wallet close.
12. Safeguard your computer.
13. Be cautious with public computers.
14. Be smart about sharing personal info on the Web.
15. Look for security when you buy online.
16. Beware of phishing scams.
17. Protect your PIN.

1. Guard your mail.
College mail stations are not exactly secure, says Ulzheimer. One person or several people have access to several thousand mailboxes, which contain things like credit cards, checks and gifts from home, he says.

A better bet: Handle bills and other finance-related tasks online and have the reminder notices sent home.

"One of the ways ID thieves work is to steal mail," says Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. But if you go paperless, "you have to remember to stay on top of it," she says.

If it's an option, rent a secure box at a postal or mail facility.

2. Use a U.S. Postal mailbox for outgoing mail.
If you're sending bills or other items containing personal information via snail mail, find a sealed U.S. mailbox, says Susie Irvine, president and CEO of the AFSA Education Foundation. Outgoing mail is a favorite target for identity thieves. "Someone can walk in and grab it, and they have a lot of information," she says.

3. Opt out of preapproved credit card offers.
ID thieves love the offers, says Givens. Since you're not getting the bills, you won't know about it until you're denied credit later. 

Visit www.optoutprescreen.com or call (888) 5-OPT-OUT to get your name taken off the list for those pre-approved credit cards offers.

Next: "There really is a do-not-send list for junk mail."
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