Students talking and working on laptops.

College students and their parents probably don't spend much time worrying about identity theft. But as students head back to school this fall, they should take precautions to prevent their identities from being stolen. 

According to the Federal Trade Commission, there was a 20 percent increase in 2017 in the number of consumers who reported that their stolen data was used for credit card fraud on their existing accounts. Reports of student loan fraud surged more than 120 percent from a year earlier.

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Students are hot commodities for thieves because they don't have much of a transaction history, making it harder to pinpoint unusual activity, says Adam Levin, founder of the cybersecurity firm CyberScout.  “Scammers use phishing schemes to steal their personal and financial information for tax-related, financial, medical, and even criminal identity theft,” he says.

Identity thieves use a variety of low- and high-tech strategies to steal a student's personal information. They include "shoulder surfing," in which a criminal looks over a victim's shoulder to see his or her ATM personal identification number, and sending out bogus credit card offers that ask for detailed information, says Levin.

Take Precautions

Students would be smart to follow some simple guidelines:

Guard your numbers. Personal information that could be used by fraudsters, such as Social Security numbers, ATM codes, and computer passcodes, should be given to people only on a need-to-know basis, and to as few people as possible. Never carry your Social Security card and driver's license together, and never lend an ATM or credit card to anyone, says Levin. 

Be careful when sending important documents by mail. Don't have important documents sent to dormitories and off-campus apartments where mail might not be secure. The Better Business Bureau urges college students to use a permanent address such as their parents' home or a post office box.

Sign up for transaction alerts. A free credit monitoring service can help find suspicious transactions, such as someone trying to make a purchase or make changes to your account, says Joe Whitchurch, head of Capital One’s CreditWise, a credit monitoring service. 

Use a strong password. A “passphrase” that would be difficult for hackers to guess may be a better option than a single word, says Whitchurch. He also says to be sure to use different passwords on different sites.

Avoid making payments by public WiFi. These networks may not be secure, allowing a thief to steal confidential information and even distribute malware to your computer, says Levin.

Be savvy on social media. Many students are so comfortable sharing their lives on such sites as Facebook, Twitter, and SnapChat that they give away too much information too easily. Meredith Krisher, security/process improvement manager with Ohio State's Student Life Technology Services, says that fraudsters can mine social media posts for information that could help them get past account security questions on various sites.

"Trusting, oversharing, and not adequately protecting access to their electronic devices are probably the most common mistakes that students make with regards to disseminating their personal information on social media," Krisher says.