College is a time to challenge your mind and forge your own identity.

As of late, college is also a time when you are a prime target of identity thieves. According to the Identity Theft Resource Center, one out of five data breaches occur at colleges and universities.

Do you know how to recognize the threat thieves pose to your university records? Do you know the best ways to keep this information secure?

Identity thieves tend to target students because college life often leaves you with little time or energy to worry about protecting your personal information.  Between cramming for finals, spending hours in the library and hanging out with friends, you may not be aware that your personal information is being compromised until it’s too late.

Colleges are aware of this threat, and have taken steps to ensure that their students do not become victims of identity theft, but there are certain precautions you can take to lessen the risk even further.

How might identity thieves target me?
Identity thieves targeting colleges are most likely to try to lift student Social Security numbers from one of the various campus databases. At most colleges and universities, a student’s Social Security number becomes his or her default identification number.  Your Social Security number is attached to every important activity at college including your initial application, financial aid forms, request for campus housing and semester schedules. Criminals can hack into any one of these databases, steal your Social Security number, and use it to assume your identity, spending money or committing fraud with your good name.

How will I know that I the victim of identity theft?
Like all forms of identity theft, the best detection method is to be on the lookout for any suspicious communications from banks and credit card companies, especially if they refer to purchases you know you didn’t make.

If you suspect someone has tampered with your identity, the first step is to call one of the three national credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian, or TransUnion) to perform a credit check, and if necessary, enter a fraud alert. A fraud alert stays on your credit report for 90 days, which should give you enough time to close any compromised accounts, to open new ones and to go through the proper channels to rectify the damage. 

Here's how to protect yourself:

1. Guard your Social Security number. As colleges become more aware of the danger of storing Social Security numbers, they are offering students the option of designing their own, unique identification and PIN numbers. If your college offers this option, be sure to take it. If they don’t, contact the registrar’s office to inquire about what can be done about changing your identification number.

2. Avoid phishing scams. These scams generally come in the form of fraudulent emails pretending to be from banks, retailers, or government agencies. If you’re even the least bit uncertain about the validity of such messages, do not reply. Report it to the proper campus authorities instead.

3. Keep your computer free of viruses, worms and spyware. These techno-nasties are often designed to corrupt files and lift personal information. Sweep often and keep your anti-virus software up to date. New viruses are developed everyday, and being prepared for the next threat is often the best defense.

—For the best rates on loans, bank accounts and credit cards, enter your ZIP code at