Why College Students’ Online Behavior Makes Them Prime Targets for Identity Theft


College students can’t get by without Wifi. In fact, six out of ten students won’t even consider attending a college unless it offers free on-campus Wifi, according to a 2011 study by OnlineColleges.net. Three out of four students believe Wifi helps them get better grades.  But when they’re logged into wireless networks, many students don’t seem to know or care about protecting their sensitive information.  And that makes them prime targets for identity theft.

Why Cybercriminals Love College Students


Imagine finding out that thousands of dollars of unauthorized purchases have ruined your credit rating before you’ve even gotten your diploma.

It’s happening with alarming frequency to college students across the country.  According to the Federal Trade Commission, young adults, 20 to 29, make up almost a quarter of all identity theft complaints – more than any other age group.

College students are especially at risk because they’re among the most frequent users of the Internet and social networking sites where they post far too much personal information. That puts them in the target demographic for online ID theft and makes them especially vulnerable to malware attacks.  Once a hacker zeros in on a college student’s computer, it’s scary how fast he can take control of it, as this post on Yahoo!® Answers illustrates:

My brother just called me  from college and I’m not sure what to tell him.  He was out of the apartment today and his roomies said that his iTunes started playing on his laptop. Well, he logged into Facebook tonight and soon someone else seemed to have control of his computer.  They were typing in his chat box and right clicking.… He is very scared because he has very important info on his computer.  He is using the wireless connection on campus.  Is there anything we can do to stop this?

The danger of becoming a victim of identity theft is just as great off campus.  College students are far more likely to automatically connect to any unsecured Wifi hotspot that’s available simply because it’s free.   That’s exactly what hackers count on to steal their sensitive information.  Since students do the majority of their banking and bill paying on mobile devices, the risk of having their identity stolen goes through the roof.  Yet they’re far less likely to regularly check their bank and credit card accounts for signs of fraud, according to a study by Javelin Strategy & Research. There’s another reason why college students are so attractive to hackers. The majority have clean credit scores which can give cybercriminals more time to exploit them without being detected.



Share and Share Alike Is Dangerous Online Behavior

Another big online security threat that college students face comes from using file sharing and P2P software. While they’re great for sharing videos and other files, they also spread viruses and Trojans. When a student’s computer is infected, it becomes a launching pad for infecting other computers on a college network.

But that’s not the only way a student’s sensitive information can be compromised on a college network.  This year, SF Gate/San Francisco Chronicle reported that computer viruses had been stealing personal information from thousands of students, faculty and staff at City College of San Francisco for more than a decade.  Officials traced the stolen data to the notorious Russian Business Network, a cybercrime gang that disbanded around 2008, but continued to steal confidential data.  According to City College, it’s likely that anyone using a personal computer with a flash drive during the last 10 years was affected.   Data breaches like that one have been a critical issue in higher education since 2005.  According to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, 16 schools across the country have suffered data breaches in 2012, exposing the sensitive information of hundreds of thousands of students and faculty members.

One College Takes a Hands-on Approach to Stopping Cybercrime

One college has taken a proactive approach to managing network security.  According to Campus Technology, Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts has a security policy that exercises tight control over student and faculty devices.  Before connecting to the university network, they must register their devices using an Ethernet media access controller so the school can monitor them.  As a result, all of the devices that use the school’s network are accounted for.  Network security administrator Rodney Gaudet told Campus Technology that the university scans student and faculty systems to make sure they have up-to-date  software and antivirus protection, their computers aren’t infected and peer-to-peer access is blocked.

Colleges and universities are open environments where academic freedom and sharing information are prized.  But that doesn’t mean they have to be breeding grounds for cybercrime. If you’re a student headed off to college, here’s what you can do to head off hackers:

How to Prevent Identity Theft On and Off Campus


∙  Get copies of your credit reports at www.annualcreditreport.com to make sure you’re starting college with a clean slate.  Check your credit report at least once a year and check your credit card statements often.

∙  Ask your college what it’s doing to protect your online security on campus.

∙  Make sure you’re firewall is turned on and your computer’s software and antivirus programs are updated.

∙  Use different alphanumeric passwords for each one of your online accounts and make them long and strong.

∙  Turn off file sharing,  Avoid using free P2P file sharing to download files or music. It opens to the door for hackers to steal information that’s on your computer.

∙  Never reply to phishing emails asking you to provide sensitive information.  Avoid clicking on links in emails from senders you don’t recognize.

∙  Be careful what information you share on social networks.  You’re far more likely to have your identity stolen if you use them.

∙  Set up your wireless network as “access point” instead of “ad hoc” or “peer to peer.”  That will make your wireless network more secure by preventing it from connecting to rogue Wifi networks designed to steal your information.

∙  Turn off your wireless connection when you know you won’t be using it.

∙  Use a VPN download  like PRIVATE WiFi™ to encrypt the data traveling to and from your computer.  It’s the only way to keep your sensitive information safe when you’re using Wifi hotspots.

Are you a college student whose identity was stolen online?  We’d like to hear what happened to you.  Drop us a line and share your story.




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2 Responses

  1. Rob Horner says:

    Great article, Jan. I’ll be reposting to Facebook for my college-aged children and their friends.

    You may want to change one phrase, though. A Media Access Controller isn’t a separate device, it’s the term used for the unique hardware ID of every Ethernet interface on a network. It’s more commonly called a MAC address. A more appropriate way to phrase would be “they must register their devices’ unique Ethernet address so the school can monitor them.”
    Source – I work for Cisco Systems.


    • Jan Legnitto says:

      Yes Rob, you’re right. The Media Access Controller (commonly called the MAC address)is used to register student devices so the school can monitor them.

      Thanks for clarifying this point.

      Jan Legnitto

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