Image: Student in dorm room (© Digital Vision Ltd.-SuperStock)
For those who have headed off to college or are on their way, defending against identity theft is certainly not near the top of the to-do list -- or even not on it at all. But college life presents a lot of opportunities for identity thieves, making college students top targets.

Warnings aplenty are issued about the problem -- from federal agencies, advocacy groups, universities and identity theft protection firms -- but paying attention to those warnings is another story. For many freshmen, in particular, it's the first time away from home for any prolonged period and some of the lessons of personal finance and security have not yet been learned.

People come and go in the communal life of dorms -- a vulnerability few others have to deal with. And keeping track of checks, checkbooks, financial documents, bank statements, credit cards and the like is most likely a new experience.

Identity thieves not only appreciate those vulnerabilities and the access, but also that college students are unlikely to have bad marks on their credit histories and are far less likely to check those reports to see if anyone is using credit in their name.

The U.S. Department of Education reports these survey results about college students that make plain the risks they take:
  • Nearly half of the students at college get credit card applications and a regular basis and throw them out without destroying them.
  • Almost 33% say they rarely (or not all) reconcile their checking accounts or credit card statements.
  • Close to half of those in college say their grades are posted using their Social Security number.
In addition, the department suggests college students ask these questions -- all of which open them to additional vulnerabilities:

  • Do you use your personal computer for online banking transactions?
  • Do you use your personal computer to buy merchandise or purchase tickets for travel, concerts, or other services?
  • Do you receive credit card offers in the mail? Do you discard these documents before you shred them?
  • Do you store personal information in your computer?
  • Do you use a cell phone?
  • Do you use your Social Security number for identification?
  • Do you have a student loan?

To help guard against identity theft, here is a list of recommendations compiled by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners to help college students protect themselves:

  • Avoid carrying your Social Security number and driver's license together in your wallet.
  • If the school uses your Social Security number for your student I.D., request an assigned number.
  • Shred pre-approved credit card offers and bills before disposing of them.
  • Avoid putting outgoing mail in unsecured campus mailboxes. Instead, deposit outgoing mail directly in U.S. Postal Service mailboxes.
  • Do not shop online or pay bills on a public computer.
  • Be suspicious of solicitors. You should never give personal financial information or your Social Security number to anyone unless they have good reason for needing it.
  • Limit the amount of information you place online. Whether on a university directory or a social networking site like MySpace or Facebook, remember that anyone can read what you post. Don't make personal identifying information public.

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