5 Ways to Protect Yourself From Identity Theft in College

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When it comes to your identity, there's no surefire way to protect it from identity thieves. Criminals who gain access to your personal information can use it for nefarious purposes like opening credit accounts in your name, committing tax fraud and more. While some things are out of your hands when it comes to protecting your identity, there are several steps you can take to help avoid identity theft while you're in college.

1. Be Careful With Public Wi-Fi Networks

If you're doing schoolwork on a public Wi-Fi network like the ones at coffee shops, malls and airports, hackers could effectively eavesdrop on the data you send over the network to the websites you visit. If you log in to your financial or retail accounts or you enter credit card or personal information, they can steal it, and either use it or sell it to the highest bidder.

To protect yourself on public Wi-Fi, use a virtual private network (VPN). A VPN creates an encrypted connection between your computer and the VPN's server, which then connects you to the internet. With this encrypted connection in place, no one can access your information. You can search for a VPN provider online and read expert reviews to find one that matches your budget and needs: Some are free, but you may have a better experience with the ones that charge a fee.

2. Safeguard Your Personal Information

Identity thieves can't do too much with your name and email address unless they have some other information, especially certain numbers. That includes your credit card or debit card number, driver's license number, personal identification number (PIN) and Social Security number.

Never share this information with anyone unless it's absolutely necessary. It may also be worth it to purchase a small home safe with a key lock—you can find some for under $20 online—to keep your documents like your Social Security card, birth certificate and others safe from roommates and anyone else who might come inside your home.

Finally, never leave your laptop or other electronic devices unattended. If they go missing, the thief may be able to gain access to all of the information you have stored.

3. Use Strong, Unique Passwords

If you use the same password for more than one of your online accounts, you're far from alone. According to a survey by Google, 52% of Americans do the same. But this is one instance where you'll want to set yourself apart from your peers.

If a hacker manages to steal your password, they might try to use that password on other websites. So it's crucial that you use unique passwords for each of your online accounts. It's also a good idea to use ones that contain numbers, letters and special characters in random order, so it'll be difficult for someone to guess. Use a password manager to help you keep track of your passwords so you don't forget.

Also, when possible, sign up for multifactor authentication. When you try to log in, this security feature will send you a code via text, email or an authenticator app, which you'll use to prove that it's you.

4. Check Your Financial Statements

If you're not used to keeping a budget, it can be easy to ignore your bank and credit card statements. But if someone manages to steal your account information and use it, you may never notice if you don't look over your statements.

Review your statements monthly and also consider checking your online accounts throughout the month to make sure you recognize each transaction. Also, opt to receive e-statements instead of paper statements, so there's less risk of your account information falling into the wrong hands.

5. Check Your Credit Regularly

If an identity thief gets hold of your Social Security number, they can use it to open fraudulent accounts in your name. And if you're not paying attention, they could use the account to rack up charges, ignore payments and wreck your credit score.

Make sure to check your credit score regularly and also review your credit reports. If you find something you don't recognize, you can dispute it with the credit bureaus. You can get free access to your FICO® Score and your Experian credit report to help you with this step.

You can also get free access to all three of your credit reports (from Experian, TransUnion and Equifax) through AnnualCreditReport.com.

What to Do if You're a Victim of Identity Theft

If you suspect you've been targeted by an identity thief, here are some steps you can take to respond and recover:

  • File a police report with your local police department and an identity theft report with the Federal Trade Commission.
  • Check your credit reports for potentially fraudulent accounts.
  • Add a fraud alert to your credit reports, or potentially even freeze your credit reports to make it difficult for criminals to do more damage.
  • File a dispute with the credit bureaus to have the unauthorized accounts removed from your credit reports.
  • If it's bank or credit card fraud, contact your bank or credit card issuers and notify them, then request a replacement card.

It's also a good idea to monitor your credit regularly to make sure nothing else gets through your safeguards. Experian's free credit monitoring service provides you with real-time alerts when changes are made to your credit report, such as new accounts and inquiries.

The Bottom Line

While identity theft is probably the last thing you want to—or have time to—think about in college, taking preventive measures to protect your information could save you huge headaches far beyond what you might experience during finals week.