Identity theft a common problem on college campuses

Breanna George

Kristi Dawes decided to open an account at the Huntington Bank on campus when she attended Kent State’s PASS program in May.

The bank clerk told her she could not open an account because she had “bad credit” and “outstanding checks.”

That’s when Dawes learned her identity had been stolen.

Identity theft, the fastest growing crime in the United States, is common on college campuses because of the large databases of students’ personal information and the proximity of college students living on campus.

“It’s really scary – you don’t think it will happen to you,” said Dawes, freshman middle-childhood education major. “It’s really hard to clear up.”

Dawes found out the person who stole her identity opened up an account at Wachovia Bank in North Carolina.

“It’s weird because I was born in North Carolina, but I haven’t been there in forever,” she said. “They used my Social Security number and put the account under my name.”

Identity theft occurs when someone steals personal identifying information and uses that information for personal gain.

“The ability to remain anonymous makes it so popular,” said Greg Seibert, director of security and compliance. “The odds of getting caught aren’t too good.”

College students are targeted because they are more trusting than the general population, said Detective Chris Jenkins of the Kent State Police Department.

“Students are living away from home for the first time and haven’t adopted street smarts,” he said. “They think nothing bad could happen to them.”

The most common form of identity theft at Kent State is paper identity theft, where someone physically steals personal information such as credit card applications or bank statements.

“I know of situations involving unscrupulous roommates and Kent State employees who steal someone’s credit card application,” he said.

“They simply change the return address so the card is mailed to them.”

College students are targets for credit card solicitors and others who want their personal information, which makes them potential identity theft victims.

Credit card solicitors were a particular problem last year, Jenkins said.

“Some of them were requesting to take pictures of students’ drivers licenses instead of having students fill out their personal information,” he said. “Nothing came out of it, but the potential for identity theft was there.”

Jenkins encountered an identity theft case in 2001 where a student had his wallet stolen from campus.

“His credit card was used – a couple thousand worth of stuff was bought,” he said. “Six months later, he had three accounts opened up in his name.”

Jenkins spoke to the student a year ago – three years after his identity was stolen, and his dilemma was just coming to an end.

“We successfully prosecuted the person,” he said. “But it can be a long process because we can’t convince the credit card company that he wasn’t the one doing it.”

Another situation occurred at another university where three students stole a student’s credit cards from an academic building.

“They charged between $15,000 to $17,000 worth of purchases in just five hours of the credit card being stolen,” he said.

Students should limit the number of credit cards they own and the amount on them to minimize the damage if identity theft occurs.

“When I do identity theft presentations, the first thing I do is ask the audience who has a credit card, and everyone raises their hand,” he said. “I then ask how many people have two or more credit cards – everyone raises their hand. Nobody needs more than one credit card.”

Students can prevent their identity from being stolen by not taking Social Security cards, passports and birth certificates with them to the residence halls.

“They’re important documents that are not easily replaceable,” Jenkins said. “I have these documents stored in a locked fire-proof safety deposit box.”

Kent State has taken measures to prevent identity theft by removing student Social Security numbers on FlashCards and requiring professors to use only the last four digits to post grades.

“Even using the last four digits is not safe,” Seibert said. “It’s not that difficult to figure out the rest of the number if you use the Internet and good logic.”

According to the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act, institutions are not allowed to release non-directory personal information.

“Faculty will eventually have to change student identification numbers used in class to comply with FERPA,” he said. “Many professors simply don’t know.”

Seibert said he knows of a telephone scam in which a person claimed to be selling student loans. The person would ask for verification of the first 5 digits of a student’s Social Security number. Many students were victims of the scam.

Kent State is currently in the process of updating software used to handle university databases, Seibert said. The update became a priority after four computers filled with student personal information were stolen from academic offices earlier this semester.

For now, students can help prevent identity theft by taking precautions with personal information.

In Dawes’ case, she doesn’t know how her identity was stolen.

She said she has called Wachovia Bank numerous times since May explaining to them the situation.

Dawes said people should be careful with their personal information to reduce the risk, but even being cautious is not 100 percent safe.

Contact academic technology reporter Breanne George at [email protected].