Preventing identity theft among a tell-all generation

Q: What’s 10 feet tall, bullet proof, has great earning potential and spills its guts on the Internet?

A: The typical college student.

While their actual paychecks remain to be seen, many students likely have no problem being pegged as both open and invulnerable. Unfortunately, that otherwise healthy attitude could wreak havoc with their finances, according to Todd Davis, a specialist in identity-theft risk management and founder of LifeLock, the nation’s first identity-theft prevention service.

Identity theft has risen steadily during the past seven years in the United States and college students represented one in three victims last year, Davis said. This comes as no surprise, given how often they’re asked for their Social Security number.

“College students are really out there because they have to give it to the financial office, the health service, if they apply for employment,” he said.

There’s no way around that, but students can take steps to keep the number, or other aspects of their identity, from being stolen.

The danger: Credit card companies inundate students with offers of pre-approved cards. Thieves then target a campus’ communal mailboxes, grab up a bunch and say, “Yes, I’d like to take advantage of this offer, but I have a new address.” The ready-to-use card then gets sent to the thief’s home and the victim won’t know a card has been issued in their name until a collection agency comes after them.

The fix: Call 1-888-5OPTOUT (1-888-567-8688). This will remove names from all marketing lists that the credit agencies supply to direct marketers, which should put a significant dent in mailings. Davis said students will still be able to receive competitive credit card offers from the bank, with whom they already have a relationship.

The danger: Thieves who have someone’s Social Security number can set up charge accounts in their name.

The fix: Place a fraud alert on credit reports. When someone seeks to open a new account, the creditor will call to confirm it through a series of identifying questions. The alert needs renewed every 90 days, or through a service such as LifeLock, which will include this among its services for $10 a month.

The danger: Someone’s unwittingly given away too much personal information on MySpace, Facebook or a chat room. Say someone is asking if they have a dog. What’s its name? What color is it? “They’re fishing for password information,” Davis said.

Even more devious, they can claim to have forgotten the password and use this info to change your verifying questions, such as “breed of dog.”

The fix: Stay alert for innocent-yet-determined probing from strangers and think twice about sharing everything. “I don’t want us to not use technology, but just take a couple of reasonable precautions,” Davis said. “Then you can go off and live your life and have fun at college.”