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Social Networks Snare Students Into Identity Theft Traps

With schools back into the full swing of fall, students are sailing the high seas of social networks with fresh abandon. New faces and friends are popping into view both offline and in cyber space, and young people at universities and high schools are heedlessly exchanging the most personal details of their lives with their ever expanding networks.

Which is precisely why students make such ideal targets for identity thieves.

While some studies estimate that up to a third of social networkers have posted at least three pieces of information that puts them at risk for identity theft, an FTC study asserts that the 20-29 year old age bracket continues to account for 24% of all identity theft cases, with 8% of all cases comprised in the 19 and under age bracket.  Students in particular are vulnerable to thefts; they’re often in new environments, eager to make friends and careless about exchanging personal information through social networking scams and other phishing expeditions (like applying for a credit card at a random booth on campus in exchange for a free t-shirt.)

Fraudsters can easily pose as peers and friends to gain trust through social networking sites, and even new “friends” aren’t always reliable with sensitive data (identity theft is often committed by someone you know.)  Further, too often students underestimate what data can be classified as “sensitive”; for example, posting your birth date in conjunction with your birthplace helps identity thieves determine your social security number.

The Identity Theft Resource Center warns that social networking is particularly dangerous when these risk factors are present:

  • Using low privacy or no privacy settings
  • Accepting invitations to connect from unfamiliar persons or contacts
  • Downloading free applications for use on your profile
  • Giving your password or other account details to people you know
  • Participating in quizzes (e.g. How well do you know me?) which may require you to divulge a lot of personal information
  • Clicking on links that lead you to other websites, even if the link was sent to you by a friend or posted on your friend’s profile
  • Falling for email scams (phishing) that ask you to update your social networking profiles
  • Using no or out-of-date security software to prevent malicious software from being loaded onto your computer and stealing personal information

A recent study conducted by uni-ball and the Identity Theft Resource Center shows that 75% of the parents of college students believe their children are at moderate to high risk for identity theft, and 89% of these parents indicated that their children weren’t heeding their warnings about security measures to protect their identities. 

Despite the difficulty in getting students to protect their own identities, it’s important for parents (and students themselves) to take every step possible to help avert the pitfalls of social networking scams that can lead to the financial disaster of identity theft.  The ITRC recommends that these steps include: 

  • Using the least amount of information necessary to register for and use a social networking site.
  • Creating a strong password and changing it often.
  • Using the highest level privacy settings that the site allows.
  • Being wise about what you post. Do not announce when you will be leaving town. Other things you should never post publicly: your address, phone number, driver’s license number, social security number (SSN), student ID number and even your home town. 
  • Only connecting to people you already know and trust. Don’t put too much out there – even those you know could use your information in a way you didn’t intend.
  • Installing a firewall, reputable anti-spam and anti-virus software to protect your information-- and keep it updated.
  • Being certain of BOTH the source AND content of each file you download. Don't download an executable program just to "check it out."
  • Remaining wary of hidden file extensions. To avoid being tricked, unhide those pesky extensions, so you can see them.
  • Using common sense. When in doubt, don’t open it, download it, add it, or give information you may have doubts about sharing.

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