What If Your College Roommate Steals Your Identity?

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I got my university degree in 2009. During my years of higher education, students in the library regularly asked me to watch their belongings while they went to the bathroom.

If I’d been at all light-fingered, I could have scored some awfully nice phones, laptops and whatever was in their backpacks.

Given how much information is stored on smartphones, I might also have been able to do a little banking or shopping.

So believe me when I say that your college-age kid is at serious risk for identity theft. Believe the experts, too, because they say that Junior or Sister make perfect targets.

He’s excited to be back in school/in school for the first time. She tends to be a little too trusting of her new best friends (and all the other strangers who wander in and out of the dorms).

She may leave a loan application lying on the desk, or neglect to lock the door when she heads down the hall for a shower. He may apply for a credit card at one of those tables without thinking about who might be looking over his shoulder to memorize his Social Security number.

Worst of all, college students have little or no credit history. Not only are they the perfect blank slates for identity thieves, they’re a lot less likely to monitor their credit – after all, most of them don’t have credit cards.

That they know of, anyway – someone else might have gotten cards in their names and used them with abandon.

Even the warning signs of ID theft are likely to be ignored, according to Ken Chaplin of ProtectMyID by Experian.

Students will look at a collections letter or a late-payment notice and figure “it was junk mail, or sent to the wrong person,” he says.

Guarding against thieves

Almost 30 percent of ID theft victims are between the ages of 18 and 29, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Obviously not all are in college, but even non-students and college grads are attractive targets because, again, they’re less likely to monitor their credit reports.

(They’re not alone. Only 4 percent of U.S. consumers take advantage of their free annual credit reports, according to John Ulzheimer, credit expert with CreditSesame.com.)

General protect-your-identity tips apply to all age groups; more on those in a minute. But students are especially vulnerable, for the reasons mentioned above and for the fact they’re living with people about whom they know nothing.

“Friends, roommates and classmates are all potential scammers,” says Steve J. Bernas of the Better Business Bureau. So-called “friendly fraud” makes up more than one-fifth of college identity crimes.

That’s not to say that your kid is living in a nest of vipers. But you really don’t know these people, and you don’t know the people they invite in. It’s also important to remember that anyone can walk onto a college campus. Many dorms now require key cards, but students may hold the door for the “student” or “parent” behind them.

The last time I was on the University of Washington campus I wandered by one of my daughter’s former dorms. As I went up the stairs, a student ahead of me smiled and waited so that I could enter after her. She probably assumed I was somebody’s mom, there for a visit.

Lock it up

Thus anyone, matriculated or not, could pop into your kid’s room for a moment and help himself to Junior’s billfold — or to the student loan approval letter on the desk. Wallets, smartphones and any kind of personal papers should be kept in a locked desk drawer or file cabinet.

In fact, any “sensitive” mail should be sent to your parents’ home or to a post office box, advises Andrew Schrage of the Money Crashers personal finance site: “School mailboxes are not always secure.”

Social Security cards and birth certificates should be locked away at their parents’ homes. If living on their own, students should keep these documents in a safe-deposit box or a locked file cabinet.

Lock away student loan, bank and credit card paperwork, too. Carry only the ID and credit cards you need at any given time, e.g., your student ID and debit or one credit card. That way your losses will be minimized if your wallet gets lost or stolen — still the most common method of identity theft, according to U.S. News & World Report.

Report any loss or theft immediately. A couple of years ago I got mugged and the thieves immediately used my credit card to buy themselves dinner. Fortunately that was all they had time to do before I called the bank to cancel the card.

Obviously you should memorize your password or PIN rather than write it on the debit card. Make that secret knock impossible to guess (e.g., not your date of birth or your last name) to reduce the chances it will be hacked.

More tips from the pros

Don’t store passwords or PINs on your smartphone or laptop. And if you don’t have password protection? Please initiate it, right now. Check out phone-finder apps, so you can trace it if it goes missing; some apps allow you to remotely lock or even wipe the phone clean.

If you receive credit applications, shred them. Ditto any other financial documents you don’t want to keep. (Recently I saw a “You have been preapproved!” envelope in the trash at the post office. Yikes.)

Don’t give out personal info over the phone or via Internet unless the source is absolutely trustworthy and you initiated the contact. Be wary about giving your Social Security number to anyone, for any reason.

A few more tips from the experts:

  • Be wary of Wi-Fi hotspots. “Public networks are generally insecure and are a favorite haven for hackers to lurk,” Schrage says. “At the very least, don’t conduct any banking or credit card transactions on a public network.”
  • Order a credit report every four months (one free one from each of the three major reporting agencies) through AnnualCreditReport.com to make sure no one is using your identity.
  • Check your credit and debit statements and dispute anything that you don’t recognize.
  • Use a firewall program on your computer, and make sure it has up-to-date spyware and antivirus software.
  • Don’t download files or click on hyperlinks from unknown persons.
  • Keep your dorm room or off-campus apartment locked at all times. It takes only a minute for a thief to ruin your day and potentially compromise your credit for years.

“It’s not about being afraid. It’s about being smart and being aware of your personal information and its value,” Chaplin says.

Incidentally, the above information also applies to non-students who share living spaces with roommates — or relatives. Family members are responsible for quite a bit of ID theft, especially as regards children. Lock up your info and your kids’ info, too.

And if the worst happens? The FTC website offers step-by-step instructions on what to do if your identity is stolen. Here’s hoping you never need to use it.

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