College student safety
In order for a thief to steal a college student's identity, they must first obtain the necessary information which allows them to "become" the college student, at least in the eyes of lending institutions and other financial companies. How easy this task is depends on how vigilant a student is about protecting their personal information.
Of course, students also shouldn't overlook one of the most common ways to steal someone's identity - stealing a wallet, purse, or backpack. This can even occur in the student's dorm room, particularly if parties or unfamiliar guests are common, and they usually are in college dorms. Students should exercise the same security at home as in any unfamiliar environment.
- Pre-approved credit offers monthly. Those mass-mailed forms, usually partially filled out with the recipient's information such as name, address, and other personal data is fantastic opportunity to steal a person's identity. If the recipient is not interested in the offer and simply throws away the form, it is one of the most common documents used by identity thieves. By picking the offer out of the trash can, the thief can then fill in the rest of the blanks and send it in or simply call the toll free phone number provided on the form, allowing them near instant access to one aspect of the victim's identity.
- Bank Accounts. Another manner in which identity theft occurs is when thieves get their hands on personal banking account information, such as a checking or savings account statement. Anyone who does not balance their account is at risk of incurring fraudulent charges, simply because they do not keep track of what charges are legitimate. Oftentimes, the thief steals by withdrawing money in small increments - not enough to stand out as a glaring error to the casual observer but enough to build up to a large amount over time.
- Social Security Number. Another danger to college students is their Social Security Number. Many college courses require a student to use their Social Security Number to log in to websites used to post homework assignments and other course communications. The university may also use that number as an identifying number in the administration office. It is very easy to forget to exercise caution when using a Social Security Number, particularly when it is used so often. Lax computer security or evens something as simple as a criminal watching a student enter the number, allows a thief can quickly and easily gain access to the Social Security Number, which is the key to obtaining additional information about an individual.
- Computers / Laptops / Tablets. Computers and laptops also pose a threat that many students don't think about. Many students use a laptop every day in class to take notes and organize coursework documents. But what if that computer is stolen? What would a thief find inside? Most students in today's world use their computers to access online banking, pay bills, order merchandise, and communicate in just about every other aspect of their lives, too. If personal and account information is stored on the hard drive, the thief has instant access to very information that makes it possible for them to assume the student's identity.
- Lock your door. This is the single most important way to keep your computers secure.
- Don't assume your desktop computer is safe. Invest in some inexpensive cables designed to tether the CPU to something immovable in the room.
- Use password protection. Adjust your computer settings to prompt for a password anytime the computer is used. Change that password from time to time.
- Don't reveal too much. Social networking sites may ask for your birth date, but birth dates are a boon to identity thieves. Likewise, do not reveal any other personal info on these public sites, or in response to any e-mail requests for your Social Security number, credit card numbers, or other data, even if it's from a familiar-sounding company. Always err on the side of caution. For example, if you receive an e-mail that says it's PayPal and wants to verify your credit card number, call PayPal directly from the number listed on its Web site - NOT from any information in that e-mail. If you simply send your credit card number in response to that e-mail, you could find yourself stuck with a maxed-out credit card and a host of negative credit report problems.
- Keep thorough records. If your laptop is stolen, can you provide a full description for the police? Write down your computer's make, model, color and most importantly, the unique serial number, which acts as a key identifier, much like the vehicle identification number (VIN) on a car. You might also need this information in case you want to file an insurance claim.
- Install a tracking device. Use a GPS tracking device that runs invisibly on the computer to relocate the stolen property.
- Use a multi-layered security approach. Consider software that provides permanent tagging, GPS tracking, covert data recovery, remote data deletion, stolen property tracing, and property registration.
- Start shredding. Search and preview the personal data (both your data and anyone else's data that might be on your computer), including credit card numbers, Social Security number(s), birth dates, tax returns and financial aid documents, on your computer. You then have the option to digitally shred, encrypt, or redact that information, depending on your needs. Students can also find free digital shredder software online.
- Contact your college's IT department about network security. Many colleges provide security software or other services free to their students. Before you purchase a specific computer protection system, check with the IT department of the college to ensure that system is compatible with the college's network, or you'll be tossing money out the window.
- Student loan forgiveness scams. Someone contacts you offering quick relief from your federal student loans or warning that the student loan forgiveness programs will end soon. To assist you, they may require that you pay an up-front fee, provide your Federal Student Aid ID and/or provide them permission to speak to your federal loan servicer on your behalf.
If you've seen an ad or received a call from a debt relief company promising to pay off your loans, don't take them up on it. The U.S. Department of Education (ED) offers some legitimate student loan forgiveness programs and ways to lower your student loan payments – all free to apply for through your official loan servicer. You'll know you're talking to a student loan debt relief company that could potentially scam you, instead of ED or an official federal student loan servicer, if you notice any of the following three things:
- You're Asked to Pay an Upfront Cost or Monthly Fees
- You're Promised Immediate Loan Forgiveness
- You're Asked to Provide your FSA ID Password
If you have already turned over your personal information or paid a student loan debt relief company, consider one or all the following options:
- Log in and change your FSA ID. Do NOT share your new FSA ID password with anyone.
- Contact your loan servicer to revoke any power of attorney or third-party authorization agreement that your servicer has on file. You should also make sure no unwanted actions were taken on your loans.
- Contact your bank or credit card company and request that payments to the student loan debt relief company be stopped.
- File a complaint with the FTC.
- File a report of suspicious activity through the Federal Student Aid Feedback System.
- The tuition scam. The fraudster calls or emails a student, claiming to be from the college admissions department. Sometimes the crook spoofs IDs to make it look like he's coming from a legitimate organization. The scammer claims the student's tuition fee is late and claims the student will be immediately dropped from classes if a payment isn't made immediately by credit card. Students need to hang up immediately on such calls and contact the college's admissions department directly.
- Fake seals and logos. They promise special access to repayment plans, new federal loan consolidations, or loan forgiveness programs. It's a lie. If you have federal loans, go to the Department of Education directly at StudentAid.gov.
- Bad behavior. Students are notorious for their hard-partying, free-spirited lifestyles in college. But behind every smartphone is a camera that can photograph and videotape embarrassing indiscretions - which can later be used against the student to extort money. There are people who will pretend to like you but are actually setting you up for blackmail. Students should think twice about their actions while at college - especially if they're drinking.
- Fake credit cards. Some credit card offers are fake, aimed at getting naïve students to hand over personal information - or lure them to sites that have malware or add malicious software to the student's computer. The credit card world is laden with scams, and college students, being new to the credit game, are particularly susceptible. Be wary of signing up for cards from issuers you're not familiar with–and not only credit cards, but prepaid debit as well. You risk the chance of relaying information to a phony lender and potential identity thief. And even the card is actually available and functioning, you need to be exceedingly cautious about hidden fees and unreasonable rates. Know what to expect from a credit card. If you see an APR of 25% or more, or an annual fee of $30 or more, you should be concerned.
- Passwords. Everyone knows they should never use simple or easy-to-use passwords on email accounts or other sites and never use the same password on multiple sites. But students need to be particularly savvy about where they store those passwords, as leaving them on smartphones and laptops in college dorms make them vulnerable to theft.
- Advance Fees. If someone offers to find a student a loan, job, scholarship or other service for a "fee," it's likely a scam. This is particularly true if the scammer says a "scholarship is guaranteed or your money back" or claims "you can't get this information anywhere else" or insists on a credit card to "hold" the scholarship. In general, the higher the fee, the more suspicious the person should be.
- Online books. Never buy books online without first checking out reviews or talking to friends to validate the site or seller. Books are drastically discounted in this con. Thieves steal your credit card information when you submit your order online, and the books you order are never delivered. Remember to make online purchases only through a reputable, secured website.
- Non-existent apartments. Never agree to rent an apartment without seeing it first - both inside and outside - and meeting with the landlord. This scam is simple: Offer a great apartment, collect rent or a deposit over the phone for a place you don't own, and then disappear.
- Check cashing. In this scam, a "friend" asks the student to cash a check for him - and might even offer to let the student keep some of the cash for the trouble. Once the check is deposited, it bounces, and the student is out both the money and a returned check fee.
- Wi-Fi. College students, more than anyone, spend mountains of time online via Wi-FI at coffee shops, restaurants and parks. Hackers and thieves prey on them by setting up an alternative Wi-Fi site - often dubbed a "man in the middle" site - that looks similar to the main site but is actually a scammer trying to get students to connect to their site where they steal a person's information.
- Any type of upfront fee. It's illegal for companies to charge you before they help you. If you pay up front to reduce or get rid of your student loan debt, you might not get any help - or your money back. Also, remember that there's nothing a company can do for you that you can't do yourself for free. And you never have to pay to get help from the Department of Education.
- Social Security Number or Federal Student Aid ID. Students are often too trusting and open, and geared toward answering questions and information. Never give out your Federal Student Aid ID, your Social Security number, or other personal information to anyone who contacts you. Scammers posing as student loan servicers can use this information to log into your account, change your contact information, and even divert your payments to them. Instead of giving out your FSA ID, call or contact your servicer.
- Spear phishing. Emails are being sent to university employees that appear to be from their employer. The e-mail contains a link and claims some type of issue has risen requiring them to enter their log-in credentials. Once employees provide their user name and password, the perpetrator accesses the university's computer system to redirect the employees' payroll allocation to another bank account. The university employees' payroll allocations are being deposited into students' accounts. These students were hired through online advertisements for work-at-home jobs, and provided their bank account information to the perpetrators to receive payment for the work they performed.
- Check fraud. Scammers are posting online advertisements soliciting college students for administrative positions in which they would receive checks via the mail or e-mail. Students are directed to deposit the checks into their accounts, and then print checks and/or wire money to an individual. Students are never asked to provide their bank account information to the perpetrators.
- Data Breaches. Some universities have been victims of intrusions, resulting in the perpetrators being able to access university databases containing information on their employees and students.
- Mystery shopping. Students receive emails or promotions for a website where they can register to become a secret shopper. Once signed up, they're then told they must pay a fee for more program information to continue the application process. Never pay money upfront for a job. Legitimate job offers will not require payment. If you are interested in this type of work, you can search through legitimate assignments at the Mystery Shopping Providers Association (MSPA) website at mysteryshop.org.
- Address farming. Thieves target large groups of students in this scam. They promise members of Greek organizations, and other types of clubs, discounted interest rates on credit cards or other services—all of which are bogus. In turn, scammers require group members to provide their addresses and personal information, enabling them to steal students' identities.
- Fake credit card applications. Thieves mix in with representatives of legitimate credit card companies who are on campus handing out credit card applications. The thieves collect applications you've filled out, then steal your information so they can rip you off on your new credit card. Typically, they skim off your card slowly each month, relying on the fact that most students usually don't read their statements. You can avoid this scam by applying for a credit card only through a known entity such as your bank or credit union.
- Student loan and scholarship scams. Crooks ask students for an advance fee in order to secure their student loans. The requested amount can be 3 to 4 percent of the loan. Or, they make up a fee in order for students to apply for a scholarship. Don't fall for these scams. Legitimate student loan agencies and scholarship providers never ask for money upfront.
- Social media scams. One technique involves scammers setting up fake pages for universities and reaching out to the college's students to acquire e-mail addresses. Phony pages and profiles are created to harvest personal information. In its most innocuous incarnation, this sort of scam means an inbox full of spam. In its most hostile form, social media fraud can result in identity theft. To avoid these scams, add only friends you know, limit the information you post online, and be wary of invitations to "like" pages.