Jean Chatzky: Avoiding ID theft on campus

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When I drove my freshman daughter to college this fall, we had plenty to talk about — class schedules, dorm room decorating, staying safe on campus. But we also had another important discussion that isn’t always on the top of the list: how college students can guard against identity theft.

It’s surprising but true: College students are about as likely to become identity-theft victims as seniors. In fact, complaints from people ages 20-29 made up 18% of all identity-theft complaints, according to Federal Trade Commission data.

Young people live life online — and share many things, if not everything. In addition, starting college means filling out lots of paperwork in which you’re disclosing personal information, including your Social Security number. Not to mention, college students are distracted and, naturally, they think they’re indestructible.

If you’re a college student or you have a son or daughter who is, take these precautions:

Protect your paperwork. College students don’t always realize how much personal information is included in their financial aid forms and statements, says Eva Velasquez, president and CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center. If you need to bring financial aid information with you on campus, be sure to keep it under lock and key — an in-room safe will suffice — or even better, send it home with Mom or Dad. Be careful with enrollment forms, housing applications and credit card applications. (Never fill out the latter at a public table or giveaway booth.) And leave your Social Security card and birth certificate at home. There’s no need to carry those on campus.

Avoid free Wi-Fi. Although public Wi-Fi is ubiquitous on campus, never use your credit card or do any banking on public networks. It’s too easy for thieves to spy and collect your personal information. Save sensitive activities like these for private, password-protected Internet connections.

Don’t disclose too much on social media. Identity thieves can easily figure out the passwords you use for online accounts from personal information on your Facebook page or other social feeds, so be discreet. Never put your birthdate, an important piece of information for thieves, on any sites. Velasquez also suggests students watch out for peer-to-peer sharing sites, where they might frequent to get music or games. “We’ve seen a lot of complaints about malware planted into computers from these sites,” she explains.

Protect your phone. Download apps onto your phone only from trustworthy sources, advises Jason Porter, vice president of security solutions at AT&T. Using alternatives to your phone’s app store can increase the risk of downloading a virus that potentially could steal personal information, he explains. Never root or jailbreak your phone either. (That’s tech speak for giving yourself super administrative access on Android or iOS devices.) Doing this removes hardware restrictions that allow users to install unapproved apps. Tech-savvy students often do this to add functionality to their phones, Porter explains. “But it’s the No. 1 way viruses and malware infect mobile devices today.”

Don’t lend your laptop. It’s highly likely you’ve been storing plenty of financial information in your computer. That’s why it’s essential not to lend your laptop to anyone, says Velasquez.  It’s not that the person you’re lending to will necessarily be a thief, she says. But they may unwittingly use public Wi-Fi where thieves are lurking or download software with dangerous viruses that can hack your information.

Monitor your credit report. This is still the best way for early detection if someone has stolen your identity. At myBankrate you can sign up to receive your credit report each month for free.