(The writer is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed
are his own.)
By Mitch Lipka
Sept 13 Two months before Shundra Jackson was
due to graduate from the University of Georgia in 2008, she
received a letter at her campus job warning that her wages were
about to be garnished if her credit card bills remained unpaid.
The problem was: Jackson did not have any credit cards.
That is how she found out she was a victim of identity
theft. As college students start the school year, Jackson's case
serves as a stark reminder that young adults are among the most
likely targets of this crime. More reports of identity theft
collected by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission were lodged by
those aged 20-29 than any other age range.
College students, in particular, are more vulnerable because
of how much they relocate, how much they socialize and their
extensive reliance on electronic devices.
"It never crossed my mind to check my credit report because
I knew nothing would be on it," said Jackson, now a 26-year-old
Atlanta resident. But what showed up on that report were six
credit cards that had been maxed out and never paid off.
Recovering from identity theft can involve a lot of time,
paperwork and effort for any victim, but for college students
new to handling their own financial affairs and with helpful
parents potentially very far away, it can be even more
It might seem odd because they have so little credit
established, but identity theft experts say it is vital for
college students to take advantage of the three free credit
reports a year (one from each of the main services) available
through AnnualCreditReport.com. This way if there is activity in
use of a student's credit accounts, it would be detected in
months and not the years it took Jackson to find out.
If you find that you are a victim, here are a few ways to
get through it:
1. Stop the damage
Immediately after learning that a student is an identity
theft victim, it is time to shut off the spigot.
Contact the major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and
TransUnion) to place a fraud alert, and notify your bank, credit
card company and any other companies involved, said Bob Welther,
assistant vice president of risk consulting at ACE Private Risk.
This could be the first time a student is dealing with this
type of adversity, and they may want to consider conferencing in
a parent on the calls, said Adam Levin, chairman of Identity
Theft 911, a company that helps protect against the crime and
make repairs after the fact.
Time is of the essence, notes Robert Siciliano identity
theft expert for the security company McAfee. Complain about
unauthorized charges immediately upon learning of them, he said.
A report should also be made with the police, whether it is
a local or campus department, so there is a formal record of the
crime being reported, said Levin.
2. Keep the student going
All of this will be even harder if the student does not
have access to money.
The best way parents for to be sure that funds will reach
the student is to make arrangements through a bank or financial
institution near the student and arrange for "secure transfer,"
said Welther. Don't send a preloaded debit card or wire the
money through a cash transfer company, he said. Levin also
suggests having the money sent directly to a college's credit
Experts agree it is unwise to give students a back-up credit
card to hide in their room or apartment, particularly in
communal living situations, because a lot of people pass through
and so many cases of identity theft (and outright theft) involve
people known to the victim.
3. Start on the repairs
Undoing the damage of identity theft is vital for a college
student, because the early years of credit building are crucial.
A credit record, which sets the path for the ability to buy a
car, house and obtain favorable credit card terms, takes years
to establish and even longer to fix if it is tarnished.
Many credit unions, small banks, employers and even some
universities offer identity theft recovery and monitoring
services for free. It would be good practice to ask whether
those services are available - they tend to extend to students
because they are dependents - because the process can be so
involved, Levin said. Added Welther: "If you're left to your
accord, it can be a very time-consuming exercise."
4. Don't let it happen again
One danger that college students might not be aware of,
Levin said, are free-standing ATMs. They tend to be far more
vulnerable to crooks using them to steal account numbers and
passwords. Get cash from in-bank locations, he advises.
Avoid using your Social Security number when it really is
not required. If a student is asked to write it down, he or she
should ask why.
Be sure that any personal information is kept in a secure
location. Do not even bring a Social Security identification
card to college.
When it comes to electronic devices, password-protect the
opening screen as well as other steps along the way that could
expose personal information contained on the device.
The Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit
organization, also urges students to avoid peer-to-peer file
sharing and leaving electronic devices in the open. It also
urges caution when using social networks and warns about
broadcasting too much information.
"It can take seconds or minutes for someone to steal your
identity, but it can take months or even years in a lot of cases
to clear your name," said Jackson, who is still dealing with
lingering issues more than five years later.
Her advice to college students: "Take advantage of the free
yearly credit reports." Even if you are not a credit user, it is
worth knowing that no one is using your good name, she said.
(Editing by Beth Pinsker Gladstone and Matthew Lewis)