Are college students putting their parents at risk for identity theft?

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College students are indifferent when it comes to their personal security. That's among the findings of a new Campus Security Survey of 1,000 college students which found most co-eds routinely turn a blind eye to a variety of common-sense safety precautions.

While student apathy on security matters may not raise eyebrows, one expert uncovered new cause for alarm: students who ignore their own personal security are not only putting themselves at risk for identity theft, they are also putting their parents at risk.

"It's common practice among college students to use their parents' names, bank account numbers, and other personal information to co-sign loans and leases, write tuition and housing checks, register online to receive grades, and more", says college security expert Robert Siciliano, author of The Safety Minute: Living on high alert; How to take control of your personal security and prevent fraud. "So when online criminals strike, they are often manipulating parents' personal data, not students'."

The survey, conducted by uni-ball pens and the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC), also included 1,000 parents, three out of four (74 percent) who indicated they believe students are at moderate-to-high risk for identity theft. Fewer students -- 21 percent -- said they were concerned about having their identities stolen, and only 13 percent said check fraud was a key concern. However, according to the ITRC, 30 percent of all identity theft complaints come from 18- to 29-year-olds).

Students' lack of concern, combined with the fact that 40 percent said they provide their social security numbers online, may also mean parents' warnings are falling on deaf ears: 89 percent of parents said they had discussed safety measures with their students before they left for school.

Safety Snub

Identity theft is not alone on the list of student-snubbed security issues. According to the survey, only 44 percent of students are concerned with having their personal belongings stolen (laptop, mp3 player, purse, etc.), 40 percent regularly leave their apartment or dorm doors unlocked, and only 34 percent are afraid of walking home from campus at night.

On a positive note, 50 percent of students surveyed said they shred important documents and bills, and only 9 percent said they share personal online passwords with friends. However, according to the U.S. Department of Education's Office of the Inspector General, almost half of all college students receive credit card applications on a daily or weekly basis and throw them out without destroying them(3).

The Parent Trap

It's no secret that parents worry about their kids - 87 percent of parents surveyed expressed concern for their students' safety while at school. Some of what may be keeping them up at night:

  • Lock Up: 59 percent of students said they feel safe on campus "most of the time", yet only 60 percent admit to locking their doors, and one in 10 has allowed people into their apartment/house whom they do not know. "It only takes a minute for someone to grab a piece of junk mail off a student's desk and use it later to open a credit line", said Siciliano.
  • Write Offs: 57 percent of students write checks for rent payments and other purchases, yet only 11 percent use a secure gel pen, like a uni-ball pen with specially formulated Uni-Super Ink which can't be washed out, helping prevent check fraud.
  • Old School: Identity theft costs victims $5 billion annually. Only 21 percent of students are concerned about having their identity stolen, with 13 percent mentioning check fraud as a key concern. According to Rex Davis of the ITRC, check fraud is making a comeback in today's economy. "Everyone's so concerned about online identity theft, they often overlook traditional pen-and-paper risks", said Davis. "But they are significant. Using a secure pen prevents thieves from washing the ink off of a check and changing the amount or making it payable to themselves."

 Back-to-College Tips

Uni-ball offers these ten tips for parents to keep in mind when sending students away to school this fall:

  1. Talk to your student about the importance of reconciling his or her bank statement each month. This is one of the quickest ways to spot existing account fraud and stop identity thieves by flagging any activity other than your own.
  2. Contact the university and ask them not to use your student’s Social Security number for identification purposes or to post grades. With identity theft being so prevalent these days, many universities are switching to systems that generate completely random identification numbers for student ID cards, but you can never be too sure.
  3. Invest in a lockbox or safe to securely store documents and valuables and remind your student to never leave important documents or personal papers lying out in the open where they can be seen or stolen.
  4. Use a uni-ball pen to write rent checks and sign all important documents. These gel pens are less than $2 and contain Uni "Super Ink", which is specially formulated to reduce document fraud and check washing, a traditional form of identity theft.
  5. Be careful to shield your PIN number from those behind you when using ATM machines, and be on the lookout for "skimmers", or fake card readers attached to the machine that retain cardholder account information for thieves.
  6. Always lock car doors and entrances to your apartment, dorm room or house – especially first and second floor windows. If biking, secure your bike on campus and off with a sturdy lock.
  7. Buy a diamond-cut document shredder to destroy credit card solicitations and other sensitive documents.
  8. Be aware of what you post on the Internet, especially online social networks like Facebook and MySpace. You can never be sure of who is viewing your personal information or pictures.
  9. Make sure that your computer is protected by a firewall and you are using secure software.
  10. Don't share online passwords with anyone, even your friends or roommates. Theft can occur by people you already know.

Safety First

Both Siciliano and the experts at the ITRC say it's not enough to send your college freshman to school with a laptop, cell phone, books, and clean clothes. A cross-cut shredder, a supply of gel pens with specially formulated ink, and a lock box large enough for a laptop loaded with current computer security software are equally important.

Other specific ways to protect students include reconciling bank statements monthly to identify fraudulent activity (nearly one-third of students rarely, if ever, reconcile their credit card and checking account statement, according to the U.S. Department of Education), never sharing online passwords with anyone, and taking precautions when posting personal information on social media Web sites.

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