Students who started university or college this week might be worried about having their iPod or laptop stolen, but how many are taking steps to protect their identity?
Identity theft is one of the fastest-growing crimes in Canada and although there are no statistics specific to students, young adults are vulnerable for a number of reasons: they frequent social networking sites and aren't always aware that they need to safeguard their personal information.
"Living in a residence or sharing public computers, you increase the risk," says Lee Dunn, vice-president and chief information security officer at the Bank of Montreal.
Campus computers, used by many students over the course of a day to pay bills and check emails, are not necessarily secure. If the computer does not have updated anti-virus software or encryption protection, your personal details could get scooped up by a fraudster, Ms. Dunn says.
Living in a residence or sharing public computers, you increase the risk. Lee Dunn, Bank of Montreal.
Some tips on how to avoid identity theft are obvious and common-sense, such as don't open a tab at the bar with your credit card and leave it there overnight. Don't leave your bank account details lying around in your dorm room. And don't reveal your PIN number or let anyone borrow your debit or credit card to buy a slice of pizza, even if they promise to pay you right back.
"If someone wants to borrow your card, assume that they have a nefarious reason for doing so. Never lend it to anyone," says Ted McMeekin, Ontario's minister of government and consumer services. "And don't carry ID you don't need around with you, like your SIN or your birth certificate."
Another way to safeguard your information is to come up with strong passwords. Ms. Dunn suggests choosing one that is composed of a mixture of letters, numbers and symbols, which makes it harder to crack. Don't write down or share your passwords, which should be different for banking, university, computer and social networking accounts. "I recommend not using the same password for online banking as you would for Hotmail or Facebook," she says.
Michael Stanfield, the chief executive officer and founder of Intersections Inc., a Virginia-based provider of consumer and corporate identity risk management services, says that today's students may not realize that the social networking sites they've essentially grown up with expose way too much of their personal information.
But the danger of posting details like your address, birthdate and phone number on social networking sites are real. Hackers on Facebook have broken into accounts posing as friends of users, sending spam that directs them to websites that steal personal information and spread viruses.
College and university students are also more susceptible to identity theft because they may be first-time bank account holders, having just signed up for their first credit card or for online banking. "They've never had to balance a checkbook or pay bills online and they are simply not aware of the identity threats that exist today," Mr. Stanfield says.
In order to make sure you have not been targeted, check your bank and credit card statements regularly and immediately notify your bank if you notice anything out of the ordinary.
Banks will generally reimburse you any stolen money (depending on the circumstances) but the process is a time-consuming hassle that includes reams of paperwork, investigating which transactions are fraudulent, ordering new cards and re-doing PINs.
Ms. Dunn, who herself was a victim of identity-theft, says it is a "terrible feeling" knowing that someone out there has accessed your personal information. "I know when it happened to me, I felt violated."
For the Ontario goverment's website on identity theft, click here.
10 tips from Intersections on how students can prevent identity theft:
1. When using campus computers and Wi-Fi hotspots, be aware that they aren't always secure. Ensure you are using encryption (i.e. anti-key logging software, or password protection) to scramble communications over the network. Try not to view personal information on open campus networks.
2. Keep your information secure by changing your passwords frequently. Keep your anti-virus and anti-spyware software updated. And if you're using your laptop around campus, always take it with you to ensure that others aren't reading what's on your hard drive.
3. Credit offers abound on university and college campuses. Walk through a student union and you can stop and smell the free t-shirts, water bottles, and key chains that banks offer college students when they sign up for credit cards. While it's a great idea to start building a credit history, read the offers - and the fine print carefully - and understand exactly what you're signing up for. Keep your credit cards safe, and don't leave the bills lying around either.
4. Social networking sites are hot spots for most college students. Reveal as little as possible about yourself, especially family name, address, phone numbers, date of birth - identity thieves only need two or three pieces of this information to steal your identity.
5. Protect and memorize your Social Insurance number. Don't carry your SIN card with you. And don't give out that number to anyone who doesn't need it.
6. Invest in a good cross-cut shredder and properly dispose of all personal and financial materials. Credit card offers you receive in the mail should be shredded. Bank statements, tax documents - and other documents with personal information - should be securely stored until it is appropriate to shred. And never leave this information out in your dorm room or anywhere it could be accessed by others.
7. Online shopping is convenient, but be sure the sites you use are secure by looking for "https" in the URL. Check with sites' privacy policies so you know what they may be doing with your personal information, or if they've attached cookies to your computer, enabling them to track your viewing and usage patterns.
8. Start the process of routinely reviewing your credit report. You can contact one of Canada's national consumer reporting agencies - TransUnion or Equifax - and obtain a copy of your credit report.
9. If you're using peer-to-peer file sharing programs, be sure to configure the files securely so personal information is not accessible to others.
10. Be wary of telemarketing and email scams. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Never give your personal information out.
Roma Luciw is a writer and web editor of the Globeinvestor.com personal finance site. Please send any comments and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.