<p> As college students prepare for the fall semester, they&#39;re busy buying new electronics, getting apartments and preparing to meet new friends.</p> <p> College freshmen are also opening checking accounts, many for the first time, and getting their first credit cards. These students are probably not thinking about protecting themselves from <a href="">identity theft</a>.</p> <p> Millions of Americans have their identity stolen each year as thieves scour the Internet, steal <a href="">credit cards</a> and hack computers to get their hands on personally identifiable information. Those thieves can use the stolen information to open new accounts, take out loans and commit fraud.</p> <p> Many incoming college freshmen may think, &quot;It won&#39;t happen to me,&quot; but college students are not immune. They make up 25 percent of all identity-theft victims, according to statistics from the Better Business Bureau.</p> <p> It&#39;s not enough for a new college student to show up on campus with a laptop, <a href="">cellphone</a>, books, and a suitcase full of clothes. He or she also needs a strong understanding of how to protect his or her personal information and defend against identity theft.</p> <p> Here are 10 ways college students can avoid becoming victims of identity theft.</p>

Check bank statements and bills

<p> College often marks the first time students are in control of their own finances, opening up checking accounts, getting credit cards and <a href="">renting their first apartments</a>.</p> <p> &quot;It&#39;s an important time in their financial lives,&quot; said Stephen Coggeshall, CTO of ID Analytics, a consumer-risk-management company in San Diego.</p> <p> But most students haven&#39;t developed the good habits they&#39;ll need to stay safe, Coggeshall said. They may not be as conscientious as they should be about scrutinizing each new bank statement and bill.</p> <p> Coggeshall recommends signing up for electronic statements, which are safer to secure and less likely to get intercepted at the mailbox.</p> <p> Paper statements can be a &quot;liability,&quot; Coggeshall said.</p> <p> &quot;The worst thing they can do is not check statements regularly,&quot; said Bob Baier, a forensic handwriting expert in the New York area and author of &quot;Identity Theft Prevention for the College Student&quot; (self-published, 2008).</p> <p> Students need to check <a href="">bank-account statements</a> and credit-card bills carefully for unexplained withdrawals and unknown charges. If there is something that doesn&#39;t look right, it&#39;s important to call and investigate immediately, Baier said.</p> <p> Delays in flagging fraudulent transactions may also result in banks refusing to return stolen funds.</p> <p> <a href="">Identity Theft Quiz: Know Thyself</a></p>

Monitor your credit rating

<p> Students may think they don&#39;t have enough money to be a target, but in fact criminals don&#39;t care about the $25 sitting in their bank accounts.</p> <p>Instead, identity thieves are after the Social Security numbers and <a href="">credit histories</a> that will allow them to open new accounts, take out loans or get new government IDs, Baier said.</p> <p> &quot;There are people buying houses with stolen Social Security numbers,&quot; Baier said.</p> <p> Scammers can open up new credit cards with retailers and instantly <a href="">max them out</a> with purchases they can later resell. By the time the victim receives the new card (or bill!) in the mail, the scammers will have already moved on.</p> <p> On average, it takes a college student 132 days for a college student to realize his or her identity has been stolen, according to Javelin Strategy and Research &mdash; much longer than other age groups.</p> <p> Since every U.S. resident is entitled to a free credit report once a year from each of the three major credit-reporting bureaus, Baier recommends spreading them out over the year.</p> <p> By requesting a report from Experian in January, TransUnion in April, and Equifax in September, students will be able to detect and remove unrecognized accounts more quickly.</p> <p><a href="" target="_blank">Best Credit Cards for Students</a></p>

Secure online accounts

<p> Email accounts are the keys to the identity kingdom. They&#39;re used by online services to verify users and send password resets.</p> <p>Users are increasingly <a href="">using email to send sensitive documents and applications</a>, all of which can contain Social Security numbers and other sensitive personal information.</p> <p> Don&#39;t reuse passwords across services, since if a password is cracked on one site, attackers will try to see if it unlocks accounts on other sites.</p> <p> Don&#39;t pick the names of the college mascot, a family member&#39;s name, the name of the dorm or the hometown, Baier said.</p> <p> In fact, he said, &quot;passwords should have nothing to do with who you are as a person.&quot;</p> <p> In order to help students <a href="">create complex passwords</a> that are still easy to remember, Baier recommends creating passwords based on sentences.</p> <p> &quot;I want to have fun&quot; can become &quot;IW2+fun,&quot; Baier offered as an example of a strong password, one that has capital letters, numbers and symbols.</p> <p> &quot;It&#39;s pretty darn easy to remember, and hard to crack,&quot; he said.</p> <p> Above all, don&#39;t pick &quot;password&quot; or any of its variations (such as &quot;passw0rd&quot; or &quot;password123&quot;).</p> <p> <a href="">Password Security Quiz: Are You Safe?</a></p>

Shred physical mail

<p> Protecting your electronics and online accounts is a good step, but many identity thieves still rely on good old-fashioned <a href="">dumpster diving</a> to find pre-screened credit-card offers and other pieces of sensitive information in the trash.</p> <p> Names, addresses and phone numbers can be abused by identity thieves, but they are not as sensitive, Coggeshall said.</p> <p>On the other hand, documents that contain Social Security numbers, bank-account numbers and other financial details and dates of birth are highly valuable to scammers, he said.</p> <p> In a communal environment like a dorm, going through what people have thrown away isn&#39;t that difficult. So shred documents containing sensitive data immediately, Coggeshall said.</p> <p> Shredders aren&#39;t that expensive, so it&#39;s perfectly reasonable to add one to the back-to-school shopping list. Or students can get into the habit of using <a href="" target="_blank">publicly accessible shredders</a> at banks or in various departments on campus, Coggeshall said.</p> <p> Thieves can use torn-up credit-card offers and still use them to apply for a card, but they are less likely to try to piece together shredded bits.</p>

Beware of unsecured Wi-Fi networks, computers and websites

<p> Students often hop on to <a href="">unsecured wireless networks</a> when surfing the Web, Coggeshall said. They also regularly use the public computers scattered around campus, such as in student computer labs or libraries, to get online.</p> <p> When students are on unsecured networks or public computers, they should remember that anything being typed &quot;can be read by someone else,&quot; Coggeshall said.</p> <p> They shouldn&#39;t be logging into banking sites or any site that requires a username and password. Any logged-in session can <a href="">easily be intercepted</a> by malicious-minded individuals, Coggeshall said.</p> <p> College students aren&#39;t used to thinking about the potential of being attacked, as they&#39;ve been largely protected from these risks up until this point in their lives, Coggeshall said. They tend to underestimate the potential of bad things that can happen, which leads to their senses of invincibility.</p> <p> Students should also make sure they are submitting sensitive information, such as credit-card details and login credentials, over a secure connection &mdash; one in which the &nbsp;URL starts with an &quot;https://&quot; to indicate the data will be encrypted before sending.</p>

Guard your personal computer

<p> Don&#39;t let your personal computer or laptop turn into a communal machine.</p> <p> People&#39;s &quot;entire lives are on that machine,&quot; Coggeshall said, noting that job applications, academic records, tax forms, student loan information and personal documents all have <a href="">sensitive information</a> that can be used in identity theft.</p> <p> Lock your computer up so that other people &mdash; roommates, visitors, or intruders &mdash; can&#39;t use it.</p> <p> When not in use, <a href="">each computer should be protected</a> with a password, and it is also a good idea to encrypt the hard drive to prevent someone else from trying to see the contents, Coggeshall said.</p> <p> The passwords should never be shared, not even with a roommate or the BFF living next door.</p> <p> &quot;Think about the data stored on the laptop and what could happen,&quot; Coggeshall said. &quot;We lock up our bicycles. Why not laptops?&quot;</p> <p> <a href="">Do You Know How to Secure Your PC?</a></p>

Trust no one

<p> Students tend to be very trusting, sharing passwords and PIN codes with friends. They are also less likely to be notice if someone is looking over their shoulders to see what password they entered on the computer, mobile device or <a href="">ATM</a>.</p> <p> Students need to be more vigilant when it comes to <a href="">shoulder-surfing</a> so they don&#39;t inadvertently expose their credentials, Baier said.</p> <p> On that note, Coggeshall recommended securely storing paperwork that has sensitive information, instead of leaving it in easily accessible file folders, or even worse, just on the desk.</p> <p> &quot;People are always coming in and out of the room&quot; Coggeshall said. &nbsp;</p> <p> It&#39;s better to assume no one can be trusted.</p>

Plug that leaky social-networking profile

<p> Social-networking sites &quot;may be the worst thing&quot; when it comes to identity theft, Baier said.</p> <p> Students are more likely than other people to fill out all the available fields on a <a href="">social-networking site</a>, such as those asking for their phone numbers, dates and years of birth, pets&#39; names, addresses, names of schools attended and other personal information that could be used to establish identity, set as a password or used for a security question.</p> <p> Social -networking sites are a <a href="">gold mine of personal information</a>, and many users do not take advantage of a site&#39;s privacy controls to restrict who can see their information, Coggeshall said.</p> <p> Many users post information that can be used to verify their identities, such as the &quot;post your mother&#39;s name if you have the best mom in the world&quot; meme that generally makes the rounds in the weeks before Mother&#39;s Day.</p> <p> College will be a time for meeting new people and making new friends, which means students will be revamping and updating their social networking presences. Make sure the profiles are restricted so only real friends can see them.</p> <p> When accepting friend requests, make sure they are actually friends and not just some random person you met at a party.</p> <p> <a href="">Facebook Security Quiz: Who&#39;s Got Your Back?</a></p>

Protect your electronics

<p> Dorm shopping shouldn&#39;t end with kitchen supplies and electronics. Make sure that new computers are protected from malware by adding comprehensive security suites to the shopping cart.</p> <p> Considering the amount of malware that has key-logging capabilities, having <a href="" target="_blank">anti-virus software</a> installed is an essential line of defense &mdash; even for a Mac.</p> <p> A full-fledged security suite will often have Web filtering and anti-<a href="">spyware</a> capabilities, both of which can be useful when surfing online and downloading files.</p> <p> Don&rsquo;t respond to unsolicited emails or phone calls asking for personal information. Banks and credit-card companies won&rsquo;t ask you for that information online. While some security tools can detect phishing emails and sites, nothing beats user vigilance.</p> <p> Getting a new smartphone or tablet? Find out if there is a security app to protect you from phishing websites and malicious apps that harvest contacts and other information and transmit it back to criminals.</p>

SSN is the golden key

<p> Above all, protect your <a href="">Social Security number</a>, Coggeshall warned. It&#39;s the important piece of identity information a student, or any resident of the United States, has.</p> <p> Students should not carry their Social Security cards, or even a copy of it, in their purses or wallets. Cancelling a Social Security number and getting a replacement can be time-consuming, and cleaning up the damage to the credit history can be expensive.</p> <p> Instead, memorize your number so you never have to refer to the card.</p> <p> The average cost of identity theft for a college student is $1,156, which is roughly five times as much as for other age groups, according to statistics from Javelin Strategy &amp; Research.</p> <p> Don&#39;t share your Social Security number with anyone without knowing why they need it. Most schools now use a student identification number instead of the SSN.</p> <p> Concerned parents and students can also look into subscribing to a real-time <a href="" target="_blank">ID protection service</a>. These services generally promise to monitor credit reports for fraudulent requests and may even scour underground markets in order to alert the user immediately if his or her identity has been compromised.</p>

10 Ways College Students Can Avoid Identity Theft