College students and high school seniors might not know it, but they're prime targets for ID thieves and scammers.
"They have limited credit profiles and rarely, do they, or their parents, think to check their credit," said Adam Levin, chairman of IDT911 and author of Swiped: How to Protect Yourself in a World Full of Scammers, Phishers and Identity Thieves.
We've heard more back-to-school warnings lately from the Internal Revenue Service that fraudsters are trying to get students to put money on iTune cards to pay off fraudulent bills relating to phony things such as a "federal student tax."
But other scams are targeting college students, too.
Fraudsters are pretending to be from the office of college admissions and threatening the student will be dropped from the class if payment isn't made immediately. Some callers demand money on hard-to-trace gift cards.
"If students receive a call like this, they should hang up and report the scam call to the college admissions office," Levin said.
Another scam: Students who are working on campus might receive an e-mail to verify information. They're encouraged to click on a link and provide a user name and password, which the hackers steal.
The hacker then goes into the campus system to change where the paycheck is direct deposited, said Von Welch, director for the Indiana University Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research in Bloomington.
If students don't check their balances, they might not realize the money was deposited elsewhere and they could trigger overdraft fees, if they keep spending as usual.
"That one is painful," Welch said.
Experts say there's a growing cybersecurity threat at schools and other large institutions. A large database of personal information for students and college professors is not much different than data for a large company or health care provider.
"All that information in one place becomes a target," Welch said.
Once crooks have your Social Security number and other ID, con artists can open up credit cards, file fake federal tax returns to generate four-figure refunds, or apply for jobs.
College students can lose ID information to crooks if they throw out any credit card applications they receive without shredding them or leave a Social Security card or other documents containing ID information in a car or dorm room, too.
"College dorm rooms have an open and revolving door, where personal information, including bank account numbers, credit card information, Social Security numbers often listed on FAFSA applications, utility bills and more are fair game to countless individuals who hang in students' rooms or hang out with them on or near campus or online," Levin said.
Given such concerns, millennials need to keep a careful watch on their credit.
1) How soon should young consumers obtain a free annual credit report?
Maybe as young as 16, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
"Why 16? It gives parents enough time to clean up errors before their kids go through a credit check to rent an apartment, apply for a job or get a student credit card," said Michael Schreiber, editor in chief at Credit.com.
Here's the thing to know: Generally, a child who is younger than 18, should not have a credit report on file. So a credit report for a young teen is a possible red flag of ID theft, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
A minor child might wrongly have a credit report, for example, if a consumer who has a similar name as the minor child obtained credit and the credit reporting company created a file for the child in error.
Or a child might have a credit report if an identity thief obtained a loan in the child's name.
A minor could have a legitimate report if he or she is an authorized user on a parent's credit card.
It's better to correct wrong information in a credit report as early as possible.
A parent is able to request information for a minor child's credit files from credit reporting companies, if you provide documents showing that you are the child's legal guardian. Often, parents or guardians need to send documents by mail to check credit reports for minors.
2) What are other ways ID thieves target students?
Get an e-mail for a great credit card promotion? Think twice before you fill out any applications online because fake credit card offers are being sent to unsuspecting students. When students fill out the application, they're handing over their Social Security number and other important ID to fraudsters.
Or students might be tempted to click on links.
"Once the student clicks on a link, hackers can now crawl into their computer and steal personal and financial information," Levin said.
Eva Velasquez, president and CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center, said young consumers tend to be highly engaged online and tend to overshare information, as well.
Taking a Facebook Quiz, for example, gives the app permission to read and analyze all of your Facebook status updates, she said. Plus, users often give permission to access their full name, age, date of birth, profile photo, hometown, current city, their entire friends list, everything they've ever "Liked," and information about the device they were using when they clicked "accept.“
And then, your information is shared with third party companies without you realizing it.
"If you think of your identity like a puzzle, you realize the more pieces of the puzzle the identity thief has, the more damage they can do to your identity and reputation," Velasquez said.
Another tip: Never store your password for online banking on your phone or laptop. Never share passwords or a PIN with others — even if someone offers to pick up the pizza or buy the football tickets.
3) How can college students spot potential trouble with their credit?
Ethan Dornhelm, senior director of scores and analytics for FICO, said college students and other consumers with credit cards or other loans should consider tracking their credit scores, as well.
The FICO Score Open Access program gives free access to FICO scores used by lenders for more than 150 million accounts in the U.S. Participating banks and credit card issuers may offer the free scores to customers via online banking sites, mobile apps or paper statements.
The two most important factors affecting the score are listed — maybe too much credit was opened up recently and drove down the score. If you didn't apply for that credit, you're looking at a red flag for ID theft.
The key point: If you spot a dramatic swing in your score over time, you might be seeing a sign of ID theft.
Another good idea: Experts say those who are 18 and older should obtain a free copy of your credit report every 12 months from each credit reporting company, Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. See www.annualcreditreport.com.