Does Your College Kid Know How to Prevent Identity Theft?

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It would be hard to dream up a better group for identity thieves to target than new college students. Fresh from relying on Mom and Dad to cover virtually all of their expenses, freshmen arrive on campus with clean credit reports, and before they've even fully unpacked, they're inundated with offers for credit cards. Naturally, they usually lack experience about the perils of dealing with credit -- everything from fees that can be imposed for exceeding a credit limit and late payments to the fraudulent charges that appear after an identity theft. And they're rarely developed the appropriate level of caution about taking care of their identity information.

Result: Once they enter college and cross the age-20 line, young adults' rates of identity theft victimhood more than triple -- from 6 percent to 20 percent, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

A Big Problem for All of Us

According to the FTC's Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book, identity theft is the No. 1 type of complaint the agency received from consumers last year, making up 14 percent of all complaints recorded. (Complaints about debt collectors and banks, respectively, were Nos. 2 and 3.)

In more bad news for college kids victimized by ID thieves, they're basically on their own in dealing with the consequences. According to a survey by consumer website last year, 66 percent of the time that identity theft results in fraudulent charges on a consumer's credit card, it's the consumer who's first to notice them. So what should your college kid be watching out for?

Social Media Isn't Your Friend

A 2013 E-Expectations Report from consultant company Noel-Levitz surveying more than 2,000 college-bound high school students found that while interest in social media may be declining, 67 percent of respondents still use Facebook (FB), 28 percent use Twitter (TWTR), and 15 percent use Instagram.

That could be a problem. As a general rule, when people set up a Facebook account, some of the first details about themselves that they post online are their name, where they were born, where they live now and their birthday -- all helpful facts for friends trying to recognize and friend them online, no doubt, but also helpful for anyone looking to steal an identity. Add in information about employers, pets, favorite movies, authors and so on -- all common "challenge" questions on bank and credit card websites -- and social media can be a gold mine for would-be identity thieves.

It gets even worse when you consider that, according to CreditDonkey, three in 10 social media users share their passwords with friends to give them full access to their accounts, and 25 percent of Facebook users happily accept friend requests from people they do not know -- enabling wider access to their personal data.

Be Smart About Phone Use

Nearly four out of five college-age kids own smartphones, according to Nielsen Research. On these devices, they carry their entire digital lives -- and a host of useful information for identity thieves. Unfortunately, a 2012 report by Javelin Strategy & Research notes that 62 percent of smartphone users don't password-protect the welcome screen on their phones.

That's the digital equivalent of leaving your home's (or bank vault's) front door unlocked. It means that anyone who gets access to your kid's smartphone more likely than not will have instant access to all the information it contains -- not least of which the phone number that a bank inquiring about a questionable charge will probably call when seeking confirmation -- making identity theft a snap.

Ask Your Kid's School to Smarten Up, Too

Nearly a decade after the epidemic of identity thefts first swept across America, many of America's colleges are still stuck in the 20th century, still playing fast and loose with what is perhaps a student's single most important piece of personally identifiable information: the Social Security Number.
Many colleges in the U.S. still use a student's SSN as their student identification number. This number then gets used all over campus -- to pay for meals at the cafeteria, as identification in the campus bookstore, to sign in at the recreation center -- and each time the SSN gets input, an identity thief gets a chance to swipe it.

As the school year starts ramping up again, so does college students' risk of identity theft. Make sure your kid is being smart not only about their studies, but about identity theft prevention as well.

Motley Fool contributor Rich Smith has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Facebook and Twitter. The Motley Fool owns shares of Facebook. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.