College Credit 101: Credit and Identity Theft Tips for Students
By Attorney General Roy Cooper
As college students head to campus for the fall semester, they should be thinking not only about earning credits, but also about protecting their credit.
For many students, starting college means starting to take responsibility for their finances and beginning to establish a credit history. Making smart financial decisions and taking steps to protect your personal information from identity theft can be just as important as deciding which classes to take.
happens when a criminal steals your personal information and uses it to run up debts in your name. According to Federal Trade Commission reports, people in their 20s are more likely to have their identity stolen than any other age group. In nearly a third of all cases of identity theft reported to the FTC, the victim was between the ages of 20 and 29.
In addition to identity theft, students should avoid mounting credit card debt. Credit cards can help you establish a credit history, but careless charging can put you in a hole even before you start your career.
By the end of freshman year, the typical college student owes an average of $1,500 in credit card bills, according to student loan company Nellie Mae. By graduation, that average debt doubles. While about half of all freshman report having a credit card, nearly all seniors do.
To steer clear of these potential pitfalls, take a crash course in credit and identity theft:
- Check your credit report regularly. It will include most every credit card, bank account and loan you’ve ever had. If you see something that isn’t yours, you may be the victim of identity theft—meaning that someone pretending to be you has bought a car or taken out a credit card in your name. You can get a free credit report per year from each of the three credit reporting bureaus online at www.annualcreditreport.com.
- Be careful with credit cards. If you choose to get a credit card, get just one, and choose the one with the best interest rate and lowest fees, not the coolest free gift. Beware of cards with low teaser interest rates that rise sharply in a few months. Whatever card you get, pay it in full and on time every month in order to avoid interest and fees.
- Don’t respond to telephone calls or emails from anyone who claims to be with a bank or credit card company and asks for your personal information. Instead, contact the bank or company directly to avoid falling victim to a scam.
- Keep your social security card in a safe place, not in your wallet, purse or backpack. Give out your Social Security number only when absolutely necessary, and ask to use other types of identifiers when possible.
- Don’t share your student ID and PIN numbers or passwords. Memorize your passwords and PINs instead of keeping them by your computer or in your wallet. Also, don’t print your driver’s license numbers on your personal checks.
- Invest in a shredder to destroy old bank statements and any documents that include your identifying information so that it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands when you throw it away. If you receive credit card offers, don’t just dump them in that trash can by the dorm mail boxes; shred them instead.
- Stop the flood of credit card offers from clogging your mail box by calling 1-888-5OPT-OUT to get off the pre-approved credit card mailing list.
- When you move at the end of the school year, forward your mail. If you receive mail addressed to a former resident, return it to the postal service or take it to your dorm’s front desk or Resident Assistant.
- Use spyware, anti-virus, and firewall software on your computer and update them regularly.
Attorney General Roy Cooper and his staff want to help North Carolina consumers of all ages make smart choices. We are here to be of service when you need us, but through consumer education efforts like these columns we hope to help consumers avoid problems from the start.