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Amy Sancetta / Associated Press
Richard Drew / Associated Press
Signs you might be a victim of identity theft include:
• Unexplained charges on your accounts.
•Inaccurate information on your credit report, including your name, address, initials, employer or SSN.
• Failing to receive your regular bills or other mail.
• Receiving credit cards for which you didn’t apply or mail about a purchase, job or loan of which you’re unaware.
• Getting calls from creditors or debt collectors about purchases you didn’t make.
• Being denied credit for no known reason.
• Receiving credit offers by mail or email that seem inconsistent with your income or financial activities.
Immediate steps if your identity has been stolen:
1. File and get a written copy of a police report. Creditors and banks will ask for this report.
2. Contact all your known creditors in writing, and keep copies of the communication.
3. Contact the three major credit-reporting agencies in writing, and ask them to put a fraud alert on your credit file.
4. Run a credit report to check for the extent of the fraud.
Your income is laughable. Your car is a POS. Your wallet is near empty, and even your meal plan is in arrears. When you’re an average, broke college student, it’s easy to believe you have nothing to steal. In a world where most financial transactions happen invisibly, though, even a poor college student has a lot of things of value to a thief, things like a Social Security number, a basic bank account or a stupidly simple password. (1234! Bosco!)
“If I wanted to steal someone’s identity, I would go for a college student,” said local attorney Julie Kreutzer, whose practice includes identity-theft law.
For starters, young people are less likely to know how to handle the theft or have the time and money to fight it. More importantly, when trying to convince notoriously suspicious creditors yours is a case of fraud, she said, “who the hell is going to believe a 19-year-old when they say, ‘Honest to God, I wasn’t the one who bought all this crap’?”
Most importantly and perhaps least acknowledged, however, is that young adults simply open themselves up to more opportunities for identity compromise through the high-tech lives they lead.
Greg Stauffer, University of Colorado Office of Information Technology spokesman, said a major source of worry is students’ heavy use of wireless internet.
“Whenever you’re on wireless, you need to be particularly cautious. Public wifi is exactly that,” he said, urging people at bare minimum to make sure any site accessed via wifi is https (emphasize the S) secure.
Ideally, “the campus has a VPN (virtual private network) service that is free for students to use. We definitely want students to use that, especially when using wireless from off campus,” he said.
A VPN provides a layer of encryption as your bits of data fly through the tubes and, “security is about layers, about layering on more and more security protections to be as secure as you can,” Satuffer said.
Often the foundation of that security is your passwords. Password theft is one of the most common vectors for identity fraud, and once a major account, like your email, is compromised, thieves can pry into or reset passwords on other accounts in a waterfall effect.
“Change you password on a regular basis, at least once a year or every six months,” Stauffer said. “And a key is not to write them down. If you need to save them somehow to remember them, there are lots of good apps out there suitable for that kind of thing, but do your research first and choose the app carefully.”
If your email account is ever hacked, change your password immediately, and if it’s your student account, head to cuidm.colorado.edu to change your IdentiKey password.
Getting even more down to earth, there is your physical hardware.
Register your laptop with the IT Service Center, which sets up a registration tent outside its building the first week of classes for that purpose. It’s free, you get a nifty sticker for the computer, and IT will have valuable tools to help recover the machine. Use software like Find My iPhone to register your smart phone, allowing it to be tracked if stolen or lost. Plus, lock down your computer and smart phone with passwords and encryption. Test that security system by giving it to a friend to try to break.
One more step down into the near Stone Age, if password theft is common, stealing identities through good ‘ole snail mail is still more prevalent. If a shredder isn’t on your college must-have list, add it. And use it.
Being young, it is easy to believe you’re invulnerable. Though you think you can spot a Nigerian spammer from miles away, Stauffer notes that various work-from-home or check-cashing emails or Craig’s List schemes still snag students every year. Beware any opportunity that asks for money in advance or arrives in your inbox unsolicited, no matter how legit it seems.
Yes, technology is meant to make life easier, but it sadly gives scammers many more opportunities to trick you or to access your personal data. It pays, or at least won’t cost you anything, to be hyper vigilant, because the real cost of identity theft is alarmingly expensive and far-reaching.
In addition to making charges and opening new credit cards, identity thieves can also buy cars, car insurance, houses, apartments and pianos, all in your name. Yes, pianos. A grand piano. It happened to Kreutzer, the local attorney. In the case of one of her clients, a family member of the victim actually secured multiple credit cards and even student loans (!) in her client’s name.
“Some creditors ask a lot of questions like, ‘how old are you?’ and check databases and others aren’t that scrupulous. They don’t care,” she said. “Imagine your surprise that you now own a timeshare in Hawaii.”
Obligatory social-media safety warning
Social media can be a vector for identity fraud, but we’d be remiss to not point out its many other dangers. Yeah, don’t post photos of yourself doing things you’ll one day regret. Check and double-check your privacy settings.
But also watch out for location services on your accounts. Posting where you are can tell those out to harm you where you live, when you’re home or away or your regular schedule. Stalkers, burglars, you name it: That’s not information you want them to know.
Plus, if anyone makes you even a smidge uncomfortable online, do not hesitate to block and immediately report them. Cyber stalking and bullying are real crimes with real victims and need to be taken seriously.