Newhouse News Service By Michele M. Melendez


By Michele M. Melendez
Newhouse News Service
Even before they start their first careers, college students may be crippled by identity theft.

Young people with clean credit histories present rich opportunities to thieves who poach personal information. College administrators are urging students to beware.

“How often does a young person order a credit report? I think the mind-set is, for the most part, they don’t think they have anything worth losing,” said Johnny May, a security consultant in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. “A lot of them work part time or minimum wage, or some don’t work at all.”

With little money in the bank or no credit card, why worry, right?

Huge mistake.

“They’re a prime target,” Michelle Boykins, spokeswoman for the National Crime Prevention Council in Washington, said of college students. “They’re often just starting to use credit for the first time, paying bills for the first time.”

Of identity theft complaints reported to the Federal Trade Commission from 2003 through 2005, nearly 30 percent of victims each year were ages 18 to 29.

Amber Finch, 20, a student at Broward Community College’s Davie, Fla., campus, had no clue she was at risk until she received an overdraft notice from her bank. Someone had been passing checks from her account totaling about $7,700, including $5,700 for bulk meat.

“I was hysterically crying, because I had just bought a new car, and I was just facing the reality of paying $330 a month,” she recalled.

Finch said she never wrote checks on that or any account: “I don’t even know how to write a check.” Lucky for her, the account was virtually empty, and the bank realized the signatures on the checks did not match Finch’s.

Finch guesses she made herself vulnerable through online purchases with her debit card. But most identity theft originates offline, according to a 2005 Council of Better Business Bureaus-Javelin Strategy & Research survey. In cases in which victims knew the source of the data violation, about 90 percent stemmed from conventional avenues, such as stolen wallets or mail.

Colleges of all sizes are working to protect student identity. Finch’s school, for example, has just introduced unique personal identification numbers for students, replacing Social Security numbers. And campuses are including information about identity theft on their Web sites, at orientation and in special presentations.

The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor lures students to an online quiz of security questions with a chance to win prizes, including iPods. “We’re always trying to think of, `How do we engage the students better on this?’ ” said Paul Howell, chief information technology security officer.

He advises students to limit the personal information they post online, particularly on social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook. And, he said, they should know they can restrict their details or remove themselves from the university’s online directory, which is available to the public.

When Bruce Brenneise, 24, of Berrien Springs, Mich., attended the University of Michigan, he feared the directory had made him a target.

“I suspect that I was chosen by people who trolled the university information system, and they were able to pick up my mother’s address, my . . . university address and my phone number,” Brenneise said.

In the fall of 2004, Brenneise received a phone call from a woman claiming to be from a credit card company. “I don’t know why I didn’t hang up the phone that time — I usually would have done so,” he said. “But I stayed on the line and answered all sorts of personal questions.”

That evening, he realized his mistake and removed his personal information from the school’s online directory. The next morning, he changed his bank account password and alerted the local Social Security office.

A year later, shortly after graduating in 2005, he received a bill from the credit card company for $1,700 charged to a card he didn’t own. He reported the fraud to the company, feeling paranoid that he had to give out his personal details again, and has not heard back.

Students who suspect their identities have been stolen are urged to call one of the three major credit-reporting agencies to place a fraud alert on their information, so they will be contacted if anyone tries to use their details. (Notify one of the companies — Equifax, Experian or TransUnion — and it will inform the other two.)

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