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Social media users, college students at risk for ID theft

| Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014, 8:18 p.m.

As identity thieves and financial fraudsters get smarter and increasingly tech-savvy, their victims are getting younger.

College students are increasingly victims of identity theft, according to the Javelin Strategy and Research 2012 Identity Theft Report. The Federal Trade Commission reported in 2012 that about one-in-five complaints came from the 20-to-29 age group, constituting the largest number of complaints of any age group.

The number of identity theft complaints filed with the FTC in that age group increased from 56,635 complaints in 2010 to 57,491 complaints in 2012.

“We typically see identity thieves target college-age adults because they have good, working credit scores,” said Caitlin Driscoll, spokeswoman for the Better Business Bureau of Western PA. “In addition, college students may be less likely to check their credit scores or monitor financial accounts. Scammers hope to capitalize on that.”

As for the reason college students are being increasingly targeted, experts say it's a mixture of naivete and opportunity.

With young adults being some of the most pervasive users of social media and smartphones, those technologies have made it easier for identity thieves to obtain personal information they can use to open fraudulent bank accounts or credit cards.

Daad Rizk, Penn State University's financial literacy coordinator, said students sometimes make it easy for identity thieves.

“Students use Facebook as their daily diaries and make public for anyone to read. They post their legal names; birthdates, including month, day and year; addresses, and pictures,” Rizk said.

According to Javelin, which sampled 5,000 U.S. adults for its study, social media users with public profiles are more likely to expose personal information that could be used by identity thieves.

The report indicated that 68 percent of people with public social media profiles shared their birthday information; 45 percent shared month, date and year; 63 percent shared the name of their high school; 18 percent shared their phone number; and 12 percent shared their pet's name. Each of these is an example of information that can be used to verify identity.

Rizk added that students subject themselves to “shoulder surfing” when they use their smart phones to conduct financial transactions in public places. Javelin found that in 2012, 7 percent of smart phone users were the victims of identity fraud — a one-third higher incident rate compared to the general public.

Joe Vahey, vice president and product manager at Erie Insurance, which offers identity theft protection policies, recommended outfitting smart phones with a home screen password to add a layer of security.

“It does add inconvenience, but also adds a critical layer of identity protection,” Vahey said. “Many people store passwords and other personal information on the notes application of their phone, so if someone doesn't secure that information, then all somebody has to do is scan their notes.”

Vahey also said that while monitoring technology is important, students should be vigilant with their finances and parents should teach financial literacy before their child leaves for college.

He recommended going into college with a gameplan that includes what types of bank accounts or cards will be used, so that students don't sign up for credit cards that offer a free item. He also recommended the student take a lockbox and a paper shredder to school.

Penn State has advanced network scanning software that searches for and removes personally identifiable information from university computers connected to Penn State's network. Rizk said that if a computer gets a virus or is hacked into, the university's Information Technology Services group determines whether personally identifiable information is present. A compromised machine must be erased, and clean software installed, before the machine is reattached to the network.

Students are issued the nine-digit identification number when they register at Penn State and that number appears on their university identification card. It is used in place of Social Security numbers for identification purposes by the school and is what appears on student documents.

Pitt has similar network strategies and also provides spyware software for all students and faculty looking to better secure their personal information on computers.

Anna Orso is a freelance reporter based in State College.

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