In today’s digital age, horror stories about identity theft are common, as scammers are stealing others’ personal information at a record pace to use for their own financial gain. About 49 million Americans fell victim to identity fraud in 2020, costing these consumers a combined $56 billion, according to the 2021 Identity Fraud Study by Javelin Strategy & Research. Some of this criminal activity took place in the form of data breaches, but most of the losses — $43 billion — were the result of identity theft scams that engaged victims directly, through phishing emails, texts or calls.
A scammer may need only a few key personal details to access your bank accounts, credit cards, credit history and more, putting you at risk for some nasty financial hits — your funds being stolen, debts being racked up or new lines of credit being opened in your name.
Unfortunately, scammers often see college students as easy targets for identity theft. They assume younger adults are not knowledgeable about these crimes. You can prove them wrong — and, more importantly, protect your identity — by knowing what to watch for and what to do.
Here are some tips to help get you started:
Don’t overshare. Social media can make it easy for a scammer to learn personal details about you. Be careful what information you share on these sites, because you never know who might see your posts. Your birthday, address, previous schools and even your pets’ names could be used to gain access to your passwords and accounts if you’ve used them as answers to security or password retrieval questions.
Speaking of oversharing, be particularly protective of your Social Security number. There are very few instances when it is necessary to provide it (possibly when you’re applying for financial aid or for a job). Make certain that the party requesting your SSN is reputable. Ask them why it’s needed and how they will keep your number secure. Never carry your Social Security card with you; keep it, along with any other documents containing your personal information, in a safe or other secure location.
Keep your devices secure. Think about what might happen if your laptop or phone were stolen. Would the thief be able to access any private information? Use your security settings to their fullest and be careful what you store on your hard drive. Saved logins and easily accessible personal data make it easy for whoever stole your device to take over your identity.
Change your passwords frequently. It may be tempting to use the same passwords across your accounts so they are easy to remember, but don’t! Use a strong password for each account. Most sites have their own requirements for what makes a password strong; typically, they should be unique, around 10 characters long and not easy to guess. Write your passwords down on paper and store them in a secure place — not on your computer or other devices.
Know what to watch for. You probably already know not to ever click on a link a stranger has emailed you, but phishing scams come in all shapes and sizes. For example, fake scholarship and loan listings can be used to target college students. Before sharing any personal information on an application, be sure that the institution is reputable. Look closely for anything suspicious: If a scholarship application asks you to pay an application fee or provide your bank account information, it’s probably illegitimate.
Check your network. Unsecured computer networks make it easy for others to hack you’re your personal information. Since secure network connections are not always available in libraries, student centers or other public places, choose security settings that protect your privacy, and be selective about what you send out and download at these locations.
Monitor your accounts. Review your financial accounts frequently. Monitoring your bank statements, credit card bills and credit score can help you notice suspicious activity and resolve it quickly. Consider signing up for two-factor authentication, which makes it more difficult for scammers to get access, as well as activity alerts. And always log out of online banking and other secure sites before exiting.
If you ever notice questionable account activity, whether login attempts from unknown devices or purchases you didn’t make, report them to the related institution immediately. That institution will provide you with next steps, such as freezing the account or sending you a new card, to help protect your identity.
Shred financial documents. When you receive credit card offers in the mail, don’t simply toss those you’re not interested in; some may include personal information that you don’t want out in the open. Shred or black out the information printed on these offers, as well as on any bank or credit card statements you may receive in the mail, before disposing of them