Published: August 25, 2023
3 min read

Starting college? Don’t major in identity theft


Dan Rafter

Contributing writer

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Two college students focus on a school project, knowing their identities are protected.

You’re ready for that psychology test. You’ve pulled an all-nighter in the hopes of acing your engineering quiz next week. And you’re confident that you’ve logged enough research hours in the library to pull down an “A” on your English literature essay. 

But what if you had to pass a pop quiz on avoiding identity theft? Could you identify the most common scams cybercriminals use to steal your Social Security number and personal information? Can you tell the difference between phishing and a ransomware attack? 

If not, it might be time to hit the books harder. Avoiding identity theft won’t help you graduate at the top of your class, but it will spare you loads of financial pain. 

Ready to earn your minor in online safety? Here’s our study guide for avoiding identity theft while in college. 

Study tip 1: Master the dangers of public wifi

If you’re studying in your college library, the local coffee shop or a nearby bookshop, you might be tempted to log onto the Internet with free public wifi. Be careful, though: Cybercriminals love public wifi because it is notoriously easy to hack. 

Hackers might be able to spy on your online activity while you are using the public wifi offered by your university or local restaurants, coffee shops and bookstores. This means that they can see your keystrokes, read your messages and, worst of all, uncover your passwords. 

This could lead to plenty of financial pain if you use public wifi to access your online bank accounts, pay your credit card bill, order a pizza, or buy a new phone or laptop. Hackers might steal your passwords, bank account information, or credit card numbers and use them to run up fraudulent purchases on your credit card, take out loans or credit cards in your name, or make withdrawals from your bank account. They might even sell your personal and financial information on the Dark Web. 

To protect yourself? Avoid logging onto financial accounts while using public wifi. Never use it to pay your credit card bills or check the balance in your checking account. You might also invest in a virtual private network, better known as a VPN. This service creates an encrypted connection between your computer and the server of the VPN before you log onto the Internet. This keeps snoops from spying on your online activity. 

Study tip 2: Do your research on phishing attacks

Hackers want your Social Security number, birthdate, passwords, bank account numbers, and credit card information. They can use it to take out loans or credit cards in your name. They can also use this information to withdraw cash from your bank accounts and run up thousands of dollars in illegal purchases with your credit cards. 

And how do they get this personal and financial information? Often, they trick you into giving it up. Cybercriminals have long relied on phishing attacks to steal key information from individuals. They might send you emails stating that they are reaching out from your cable provider, credit card company, or cellphone provider. They might say that they need to update their account information to keep your service current. Or they might claim that they are investigating a suspicious purchase made with your credit card. 

They’ll then ask you to click on a link. When you do, you’re often taken to a new web page asking for your personal and financial information. The page might ask you to provide your Social Security number, credit card log-in information, bank account password, or checking account number. When you provide this information? You’ve given it to a scammer who can use it to inflict financial pain. 

Other times, the link might flood your computer with malware or spyware once you click it. Hackers can then use this malware to log your keystrokes or take over control of your laptop. 

To avoid this scam? Never give your personal or financial information out to anyone. Remember, your cellphone, credit card, student loan, and other providers will never ask for this information in an email or text. If you’re worried that the email might be legitimate, call the provider at its customer-service number and ask. Don’t click links in email messages or texts, either, unless you know and trust the senders. 

Study tip 3: Study your online bank and credit card accounts often

If you bank online? You have a key tool in fighting cybercriminals: You can review your bank account and credit card information each day. 

Studying these accounts is a good way to spot signs of potential fraud. Maybe you notice a large withdrawal from your bank account or a purchase on your credit card statement from a shop in Miami when you’re a college student in New York City. If you notice suspicious transactions, contact your credit card provider or bank immediately. If you report a fraudulent transaction to your credit card provider within 60 days of your credit card statement, you won’t be responsible for any of the illegal charges.

You should also notify your bank or credit union within 60 days of an illegal withdrawal from your account.

Once you notify your bank or credit card provider of fraudulent transactions, they’ll take steps to protect your account. Your credit card provider will send you a new credit card while your bank will send you a new debit card. 

The best way to protect yourself from this fraud is to monitor your online statements regularly. That way, you can catch any unauthorized charges or withdrawals quickly, close your accounts and prevent the thieves from making any additional illegal transactions.

Study tip 4: Learn the art of staying semi-private on social media

It’s fun to share photos of you and your friends hanging out at the football game. Or maybe you want to share some images of the big class project you and your classmates have been working on all semester. Be careful, though: Sharing too much on social media sites could make life easier for the cybercriminals trying to steal your identity. 

What shouldn't you share on Instagram, TikTok, and other social media sites? Don't provide any personal information, such as your birthday or current address. Don't even share what dorm you are staying in or what off-campus house you've reserved for the semester. Hackers can use this information to crack the passwords you use to log into your bank or credit card accounts. 

And if you're going on a road trip? Be especially careful. Letting cybercriminals know that you are going to be out of town could lead to a real break-in of your dorm of off-campus housing. 

It's okay to share images and messages on social media. Just make sure that your posts don't contain any information that criminals can use against you.

Study tip 5: Keep those devices close!

You probably tote your laptop around campus. And you certainly bring your smartphone wherever you go, whether it’s the student union, library, local pizza spot, or the classroom. Be careful not to leave these devices out of your sight. And if you leave a laptop or phone at the cafeteria, a friend’s dorm room, or on a bench on the quad? Act quickly. 

If criminals nab your forgotten or lost devices and can access them, they can use them to log onto your bank accounts and credit card portals. They can spy on your messages, track your online activity, and access any photos or documents you’ve stored on these devices. 

That’s why it’s important to always keep your devices close by and to never leave them sitting exposed when you’re not around. You should take steps to secure your devices, too. Make sure your phones and laptops are password-protected so that thieves can’t simply log onto them. You might set up fingerprint- or facial-recognition on your devices so that people who find them can’t access them. 

Set up “find my device” services, too, that let you find misplaced devices. These services might also let you lock your devices or wipe personal or financial information from them so that even if criminals nab them, they can’t do any damage. 

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