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Dr. Gregory A. Buford was a junior at the University of California- San Diego when his wallet was stolen from his parked car in a school lot. The theft led to more than a loss of money -- the thief opted to steal his identity as well.

“It was a nightmare,” Buford tells MainStreet, adding it took 10 years to get the situation sorted out. He was ultimately aided by a local police officer who, through an intense letter-writing campaign, finally expedited the process. “I’m very, very tight with my information now,” Buford says.

While Buford’s story is unfortunate, it is also rather typical. College students are at high risk for identity theft, and one of the reasons for this is that they’re slower to discover the situation. A 2010 report released by Javelin Research & Strategy found it takes young adults age 18 to 24 nearly twice as many days to detect a fraud has occured, compared to older age groups. (Check out this MainStreet article for reasons why you need to identity fraud quickly.)

Steve Schwartz, Executive Vice President of Consumer Services for Intersections Inc, an Identity Theft service provider who co-sponsored Javelin’s research, agrees college students are generally less likely to identify potential risks.

“For many, it’s their first foray out of the cocoon and they just don’t know any better,” Schwartz says. He adds that many college students are highly dependent on social media networks, which increases the likelihood of identity theft exposure.   

However, college students aren’t at risk simply because they are naïve. They are also entering a new environment and a markedly different stage in life that, by nature, requires them to repeatedly give out personal information.
“College-age people are tossing their Social Security number all over the place as they establish themselves in society,” Robert Siciliano, an identity theft expert, explains. “They are giving out the [Social Security Card] applying to schools, applying for student loans, applying for housing, applying for credit cards, applying for jobs, applying for insurances and on and on and on.”

Sharing all of this information can be problematic. According to the Identity Theft Resources Center, educational institutions accounted for 20% of all data breaches in 2008. Just this March, the Educational Credit Management Corp., a guarantor of federal student loans, reported 3.3 million names, addresses, Social Security numbers and dates of birth were stolen from their databases.  Due to the prevelance of these types of hacks, Schwartz advises students to question anyone who is requesting their name, address and Social Security number. This includes your school’s office of records and registration.

“Treat your identity elements as if they were money,” Schwartz says. “You have to ask someone who is requesting your personal information if they actually need it for a real, legitimate reason.”

Additionally, Schwartz says you shouldn’t hesitate to ask your college what safeguards it has in place to protect you, should the information be required.  

How else can college students minimize their risk? MainStreet offers the following tips:

Leave your Social Security card at home with Mom and Dad.

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“Thieves are no longer stealing wallets for money. They are stealing them for information,” Mari Frank, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Recovering from Identity Theft, points out. Carefully monitor what you are carrying around with you. That means your birth certificate, driver’s license, student ID card and Social Security card shouldn’t all be in your wallet or purse. In fact, Schwartz suggests that you don’t even bring your Social Security card to campus. “Leave it home with Mom and Dad,” he says.

Beware Wi-Fi networks.

Whether you are on your PC or a campus computer, you should avoid Wi-Fi spots that are not secure. (If you can access it without a password, chances are thieves can too.) Stick to networks that require username and passwords. Additionally, make sure your operating system, browser and anti-virus software are updated and avoid making transactions that involve personal data.

Social network in moderation.

We won’t suggest that you delete your Facebook account, but you might want to consider keeping a sparse profile. Refrain from including your family name, address, phone numbers, date of birth or e-mail account.  “Identity thieves only need two or three pieces of this information to steal your identity,” Schwartz says.

Make peer-to-peer file shares at your own risk.

According to Schwartz, peer-to-peer file sharing programs, such as Kazaa, WinMX, LimeWire and BitTorrent, essentially give strangers access to your computer’s hard drive. As such, be sure to configure the files securely so personal information is not accessible to others. Or just don’t share.

Don’t shop ‘til you drop online.

If you’re in need of some goods, you might want to roadtrip it to a nearby mall. Online shopping, while convenient, can increase the chances of having you identity stolen. Schwartz says to make sure the sites you use are secure by looking for “https” in the URL. Additionally, check with sites’ privacy policies to find out what they may be doing with your personal information, or if they’ve attached cookies to your computer that enables them to track your viewing and usage patterns.

Staying on top of your finances is a great way to prevent identity theft. What else should college students know about money? Check out this MainStreet article for more money lessons.

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