College ushers many young people into adulthood and all the freedoms that come with it. Curfew? What's that? Pizza at 2 a.m.? Now there's a healthy dinner. Class at 8 a.m.? Your choice whether to attend.
College is also fertile ground for identity thieves, who know that newly-minted adults are celebrating their freedom—and not necessarily thinking about the consequences.
If you're a college student or the parent of one, take a few minutes to acquaint yourself with these guidelines for safeguarding your identity. It could save you a lot of hassle, heartache, and money in the long run.
1. Secure Your Documents
Chances are, you are going to need hard copies of various important and sensitive documents to register for classes and on-campus health care, including your Social Security card, tax returns, and medical records. If you plan on taking these to college with you, make sure they are not available to prying eyes—or sticky fingers.
"All of these documents need to be stored securely," says Eva Velasquez, president, and CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center. "Throwing them in a drawer in your dorm room is a bad idea."
If you're not living at your parents' house, make sure you store these documents in a secure filing system. A lockbox could be a good start, but remember that it's portable—making it susceptible to theft.
"That secure lockbox may keep your roommate and friends out of your personal stuff, but if someone is not in your trusted category, they could easily pick it up and make off with it," says Velasquez.
A better option is locked drawer in a desk or a small filing cabinet that can't be moved easily.
2. Protect Your Digital Life
The Internet is a blessing—but it can also be a curse. Fraudsters are always on the lookout for vulnerable computers and networks they can hack into for sensitive information, which is why it's imperative that you make sure your computer and phone are all up-to-date with the most recent anti-virus and malware software. If you're unsure of where to start, check with your university's IT or housing department. Many will offer safe links or advice on how to download the correct software.
You will likely be creating new accounts and passwords for university email and more. That's a good time to make sure your passwords are all secure and unique. Don't use the same password across multiple accounts—that leaves you more vulnerable to hacks. Instead, try a password manager to create unique passwords that are more difficult to crack.
You should also make sure your computer is password-protected. Chances are, lots of people are going to be in and out of your dorm room. Even if your computer or laptop is compromised or stolen, you want to make sure no one can get into the device itself.
3. Beware of WiFi
WiFi is fast and plentiful on college campuses, which is a great convenience. But it can also be a big danger.
"Everything you have on public WiFi can be exposed," says Velazquez. "And you might be thinking, ‘So what if someone can access my econ homework?' But what about your FAFSA, or other sensitive documents?"
Velazquez suggests using a VPN, or virtual private network, when you're on public WiFi. VPNs are not that expensive, and they protect your data when you're on a public Internet connection.
The same goes for peer-to-peer network sharing, which is often riddled with spyware and malware. If you're tempted to share media on a P2P network, consider whether it's really worth it. Today's streaming sites allow you access to a bevy of media and music. Check those out instead of exposing your computer across P2P networks.
For more tips on how to protect yourself, check out our 7 Steps To Fight Back Against Identity Theft.
Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer or other company, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. All information, including rates and fees, are accurate as of the date of publication.
This article was originally published on August 23, 2018, and has been updated.