College Students Prime Target For ID Theft

Identity thieves zero in on college students much of the time. They're deemed particularly vulnerable to ID theft, and people aged 18-29 make up the group most commonly victimized by it.

Financial author and radio host Dave Ramsey, who frequently hears from ID-theft victims on his call-in show, came to The Early Show Tuesday to explain why students are more likely to encounter this problem, and offer advice to parents and students about preventing it.

Every college student and parent is familiar with the booths on campus or in the student union, tempting kids to sign up for credit cards. But, warns Ramsey, credit cards and college students can be a bad combination.

Signing up for a card in exchange for a free T-shirt turned into a big problem for Kim from Tennessee, who then wrote to Ramsey:

"My third day at college, I applied for several credit cards on campus. Five years later, I found out that all my personal information was posted on a Web site. I had cars bought in my name and credit accounts across the country. A college student who ran one of the credit card booths was responsible for posting my information. Even though I now have a new Social Security number, I constantly have to monitor my credit reports. I have had to explain all of this to employers who run background checks on me. Those free T-shirts wound up costing me $150,000!"

Unfortunately, Ramsey observed, college students and campuses are big targets of identity thieves. The Federal Trade Commission discovered that 31 percent of identity-theft victims fall into the 18-29 age group. Last December, UCLA reported that hackers accessed the school's database, which contained personal information on about 800,000 current and former students and staff. While that was one of the largest such incidents, similar scenarios happen regularly at universities across the country. Schools are a logical target: There are many different offices and computers with this information that can be hacked into, and a large pool of potential victims. While parents and students can't prevent this from happening, they can work to insure that the student herself doesn't hand her identity to a thief.

Why are college students such likely targets?

  • Naivety: Ramsey believes this is the No. 1 reason. Students simply aren't aware that this might happen to them or that they need to take steps to prevent the problem. Ramsey tells of a Web "phishing" scam at his daughter's school: Students received an e-mail from the local bank, asking them to "verify" personal information. Many, many students replied to the e-mail, and their accounts were promptly cleaned out. Also along those lines, students today are much more likely to share their personal information online — be it on a social networking site or shopping online, etc. These activities can result in ID theft if you're not careful.
  • Receiving many credit card offers: According to the Department of Education, half of all college students receive credit card applications on a daily or weekly basis. Many students simply throw these away without destroying them. Anyone walking by a trash can grab your offer, fill it out, and receive a card in your name, all without your knowledge.
  • Failure to examine financial records: Students are notoriously bad at balancing their checking accounts or carefully reading credit card statements. This means an identity theft may go undetected for quite some time.

    What can parents do to help protect their kids?

  • Talk about it: You warn your kids about drugs, drinking and sex; add ID theft to the list, Ramsey suggests.
  • Send a shredder to school: Make sure your student's back-to-school list contains one, so they can destroy their mail and all those pesky credit card offers.
  • Pull credit reports: When your child comes home to visit, sit down together and pull his free credit report, just to make sure it contains nothing unexpected. This is a good habit to instill in your child for the long-term, and doing it together emphasizes its importance.