Back-to-School 2011: How Students Can Avoid Identity Theft

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NEW YORK (MainStreet) – Younger Americans – especially college kids – may feel they’re financially bullet-proof, but they’re more vulnerable than they might think.

Studies have shown that it takes 18- to 24-year-old Americans twice as long to find out they’ve been the victim of I.D. fraud – which is usually too late to do anything about it. What can college kids do to nip that problem in the bud?

Whatever tactics they use, college students better act fast. Mostly due to a weak economy that has I.D. thieves growing more brazen and desperate, identity theft is on the rise:

  • The amount of U.S. identity fraud victims climbed 12% to 11.1 million adults in 2010, the highest number since Javelin Research began tracking I.D. theft in 2003.
  • According to Javelin, 71% of fraud incidents "began occurring in less than one week from when the data was first stolen, up from 33% in 2005."

The big problem with younger Americans is they’re less likely, Javelin says, to track the activity in their bank accounts and credit cards on a regular basis. They also are less likely than their parents and grandparents to use identity theft monitoring services.

Now Wells Fargo is out with some tips and advice for college students to protect their personal identities once they’re on campus – and long after they’re gone.

"We encourage all of our customers to take advantage of services that allow them to monitor their accounts regularly – in whatever way they choose – whether reviewing online statements, using mobile banking to see a snapshot of account information, viewing account information at the ATM or receiving alerts,” says Secil Watson, senior vice president of Wells Fargo Internet Services Group.

Here are a few of the bank’s suggestions:

  1. Secure your mail. College students may live in the digital age, but they should pay close attention to their mail, a big target of identity thieves. “The Better Business Bureau recommends having sensitive mail sent to a permanent address such as a parent’s home or a P.O. Box,” says Wells Fargo. “This should include all financial and medical information, which may contain confidential details. Ask if a paperless statement is an option so you can access account information online instead.” Remember, your school may send a loan check or academic records via snail-mail, so make sure that mail is going to a secure place.
  2. Keep a lid on social media. Sure, everyone’s on Facebook and Twitter these days, and once you leave college chances are good that you’ll wind up on LinkedIn as well. But watch what you say and share on social media sites. Scam artists only need a bit of information – an address, a phone number or even your mother’s maiden name to access your personal records. Rule of thumb? If you think something may be usable by a thief, don’t share it with others.

  • Take no email, text or tweet for granted. Identity thieves specialize in posing as banks, credit card companies and other business entities to get their hands on your personal financial data. So if you’re contacted by someone claiming to be from a financial services provider or other “legitimate company” as Wells Fargo puts it, double-check with your actual contact. By and large, banks, card companies and service providers won’t ask you for personal data via email, text message or Twitter. Here, the old adage applies. When in doubt, check it out.
  • Go mobile. Young consumers already love technology, so leverage that passion – or at least strong interest – by signing up for mobile banking. “This will enable you to monitor your accounts regularly, when it's convenient for you,” says Wells Fargo. “Research has shown electronic banking is the quickest way to detect account fraud.”
  • Get alerts. Contact your financial services providers and ask to sign up for regular “alerts” that can give you a heads-up if there are any large transactions or suspicions of unauthorized access to your bank or credit card account. Such alerts can be sent straight to your email account or smart phone – and can save you tons of trouble and lots of money.
  • Wells Fargo also advises securing laptop or tablet computers and other mobile devices with a password. It’s easy to lose them or have them stolen on busy college campuses.

    Take these steps and your trip back to your alma mater should be identity theft-free. But if not, you’re on your own. And there’s a good chance you’ll fail identity theft 101.

    —For more tips and tricks on protecting your personal information, visit MainStreet’s “Privacy & Security” topic page for our latest coverage!

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