Ask Kim


5 Steps to Protect Your College Student's ID

Kimberly Lankford

Your child can be vulnerable to identity theft when he or she heads off to school.



My daughter is about to start college, and I’m wondering what we should do to protect her against identity theft while she’s gone.

College students can be particularly vulnerable to ID theft. Not only are they living away from home for the first time, they’re sharing their personal space with a lot of people they don’t know well. Here are five important steps they can take to help protect themselves from ID thieves:

1. Guard personal items. A study by Travelers Insurance found that the majority of ID-fraud claims were caused by old-fashioned theft. Seventy-six percent of Travelers’ ID-fraud claims in 2009 stemmed from a stolen wallet, purse, personal identification or computer, compared with only 9% from an online breach or compromised data. (ID fraud is when the thief actually uses the stolen information to commit a crime, such as take out credit in the person’s name, make charges on his or her existing cards, or withdraw money from the victim’s bank accounts.)

It’s easy for items to be stolen when your child is at college and so many people are constantly around. Tell your child to not to leave her wallet, purse or computer unattended in the library, in the cafeteria or at a party. See My Wallet Was Stolen: 4 Lessons Learned for more information.

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2. Protect mail. College students usually have roommates, move frequently and can spend months away from their dorm or apartment during the summer and holidays -- making it easy for someone to steal their mail and use the information for ID theft. Make sure important mail isn’t lying around. Remind your child to stop mail delivery when she’s gone for the holidays and to forward mail when she moves. Or have your child’s bank statements and other key documents continue to go your house; she can check her balances and account status online while she’s at school.

3. Be careful online. College students use their own computers, school computers and mobile devices for almost everything. Tell your daughter not to pay bills or access credit-card accounts on a public computer, which could have software that logs keystrokes and records passwords and account numbers. And warn her about accessing sensitive information on an unsecure Wi-Fi network.

4. Question the need to reveal personal information. When new college students are living away from home for the first time, they’re not always used to being skeptical about requests for personal information -- especially if it seems to come from an official source, such as their college or a prospective lender or landlord. Remind your student how important it is to guard personal information, particularly her Social Security number, and tell her to ask why it’s needed before giving it out, says Joe Reynolds, ID-fraud product manager for Travelers Insurance. Make sure the college doesn’t print your child’s Social Security number on her ID card, and ask potential landlords whether your child can wait to give them her Social Security number until she’s a finalist for the apartment (they may want to check her credit record before renting her the apartment, but they shouldn’t need the information on her initial application).

And warn your children about phishing (see Can You Spot Scam E-mails?). Even though an e-mail or phone call might seem to be from a bank or credit-card company, tell your child to make sure by calling the customer-service number listed on her bank’s Web site or on the back of her credit card rather than clicking on a link in an e-mail or calling a number left on her voicemail.

5. Use a shredder. Because they live among so many people, college students need to be particularly careful when disposing of documents that contain personal information. Reynolds recommends investing in a small shredder to get rid of credit-card applications and mailings that include sensitive information, such as card numbers and Social Security numbers.

For more information about ID-theft red flags, see Tricks ID Thieves Use. For advice about protecting children from identity thieves, see Protect Your Kids From ID Theft and Your ID Theft Prevention Kit for tips to help people of all ages avoid ID theft. And for more information about finances for college kids, see 5 Financial Lessons for College Students.

Got a question? Ask Kim at askkim@kiplinger.com.



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