(The writer is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)
By Mitch Lipka
Two months before Shundra Jackson was due to graduate from the University of Georgia in 2008, she received a letter at her campus job warning that her wages were about to be garnished if her credit card bills remained unpaid. The problem was: Jackson did not have any credit cards.
That is how she found out she was a victim of identity theft. As college students start the school year, Jackson's case serves as a stark reminder that young adults are among the most likely targets of this crime. More reports of identity theft collected by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission were lodged by those aged 20-29 than any other age range.
College students, in particular, are more vulnerable because of how much they relocate, how much they socialize and their extensive reliance on electronic devices.
"It never crossed my mind to check my credit report because I knew nothing would be on it," said Jackson, now a 26-year-old Atlanta resident. But what showed up on that report were six credit cards that had been maxed out and never paid off.
Recovering from identity theft can involve a lot of time, paperwork and effort for any victim, but for college students new to handling their own financial affairs and with helpful parents potentially very far away, it can be even more confusing.
It might seem odd because they have so little credit established, but identity theft experts say it is vital for college students to take advantage of the three free credit reports a year (one from each of the main services) available through AnnualCreditReport.com. This way if there is activity in use of a student's credit accounts, it would be detected in months and not the years it took Jackson to find out.
If you find that you are a victim, here are a few ways to get through it:
1. Stop the damage
Immediately after learning that a student is an identity theft victim, it is time to shut off the spigot.
Contact the major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) to place a fraud alert, and notify your bank, credit card company and any other companies involved, said Bob Welther, assistant vice president of risk consulting at ACE Private Risk.
This could be the first time a student is dealing with this type of adversity, and they may want to consider conferencing in a parent on the calls, said Adam Levin, chairman of Identity Theft 911, a company that helps protect against the crime and make repairs after the fact.
Time is of the essence, notes Robert Siciliano identity theft expert for the security company McAfee. Complain about unauthorized charges immediately upon learning of them, he said.
A report should also be made with the police, whether it is a local or campus department, so there is a formal record of the crime being reported, said Levin.
2. Keep the student going
All of this will be even harder if the student does not have access to money.
The best way parents for to be sure that funds will reach the student is to make arrangements through a bank or financial institution near the student and arrange for "secure transfer," said Welther. Don't send a preloaded debit card or wire the money through a cash transfer company, he said. Levin also suggests having the money sent directly to a college's credit union.
Experts agree it is unwise to give students a back-up credit card to hide in their room or apartment, particularly in communal living situations, because a lot of people pass through and so many cases of identity theft (and outright theft) involve people known to the victim.
3. Start on the repairs
Undoing the damage of identity theft is vital for a college student, because the early years of credit building are crucial. A credit record, which sets the path for the ability to buy a car, house and obtain favorable credit card terms, takes years to establish and even longer to fix if it is tarnished.
Many credit unions, small banks, employers and even some universities offer identity theft recovery and monitoring services for free. It would be good practice to ask whether those services are available - they tend to extend to students because they are dependents - because the process can be so involved, Levin said. Added Welther: "If you're left to your accord, it can be a very time-consuming exercise."
4. Don't let it happen again
One danger that college students might not be aware of, Levin said, are free-standing ATMs. They tend to be far more vulnerable to crooks using them to steal account numbers and passwords. Get cash from in-bank locations, he advises.
Avoid using your Social Security number when it really is not required. If a student is asked to write it down, he or she should ask why.
Be sure that any personal information is kept in a secure location. Do not even bring a Social Security identification card to college.
When it comes to electronic devices, password-protect the opening screen as well as other steps along the way that could expose personal information contained on the device.
The Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit organization, also urges students to avoid peer-to-peer file sharing and leaving electronic devices in the open. It also urges caution when using social networks and warns about broadcasting too much information.
"It can take seconds or minutes for someone to steal your identity, but it can take months or even years in a lot of cases to clear your name," said Jackson, who is still dealing with lingering issues more than five years later.
Her advice to college students: "Take advantage of the free yearly credit reports." Even if you are not a credit user, it is worth knowing that no one is using your good name, she said.
(Editing by Beth Pinsker Gladstone and Matthew Lewis)