At 19, Sheila Gordon had her entire college career ahead of her. That is, until her identity was stolen.
For the next 11 years, she could not finish her college education. She didn’t qualify for student loans because the woman who posed as her was employed and collecting welfare in other states.
The trouble didn’t end there.
She had warrants out for her arrest for child abuse.
She couldn’t get hired.
She couldn’t get a phone, gas or electricity in her name.
She was in debt $150,000.
Some one who went through her personnel file at her job stole Gordon’s Social Security number and personal information.
“I want students to understand that it’s not …just (about) getting a credit card and draining a bank account, like ‘Oh, what’s the big deal, said Gordon. “I was in college, and this is what happened to me … It can affect your whole career.”
Gordon is now the director of victim’s services for the Identity Theft Resource Center. The ITRC is a non-profit organization. Its mission is to research, analyze and distribute information about the growing crime of identity theft, according to www.idtheftcenter.org . The organization also walks victims through the steps of recovery.
According to Gordon, 10 million people reportedly had their identities stolen in 2004.
The ITRC 2003 study of identity theft revealed that approximately 85 percent of victims found out inadvertently, through denied credit cards or loans, for example.
Studies also show that Florida has the sixth-highest victimization rate for identity theft in the United States.
Unfortunately, students can be especially vulnerable to these crimes.
One reason is that they are not savvy with credit situations, Gordon said.
For instance, many students are willing to apply for credit cards when they are offered free items in return.
“A lot of times, those people are not legitimate, they’re just harvesting for information,” said Gordon.
Gordon added that there are many ways to apply for a credit card, so students should avoid the free offers.
“Free food is free food, but going for hours to clean up your identity is not worth that free hotdog.”
Students also have many opportunities to apply for credit cards through the mail.
Almost half of all college students get credit card applications in the mail on a weekly basis, according to www.ed.gov . Criminals can easily take unused applications and apply for them in your name. Because of this, it is essential that students destroy these applications, not just throw them away.
Credit cards are not the only threat.
One’s Social Security number basically constitutes one’s identity in numbers. Unfortunately, many student ID numbers are the students’ Social Security number.
“I would recommend that you request that your student ID number be changed to a random number,” said Gordon
She added that many times, professors post grades according to student numbers, which is also a vulnerability. Posting random numbers is significantly safer than posting even a fraction of your Social Security number, said Gordon.
Gordon also recommends that students do not keep their Social Security cards in their wallets.
Many non-educational students also require people to give their Social Security numbers for various reasons, such as signing in at a doctor’s office.
If the institution is not governmental, one should ask why their Social Security number is needed.
If you must transmit personal information on the phone, it is important that you use a land line, Gordon said. Because cell phones can easily be intercepted, you can’t be sure that someone isn’t listening in on you.
The Internet has become a haven for identity thieves.
One type of Internet scam that has become particularly hard to control is called phishing. It occurs when the perpetrator poses as a legitimate institution and then tries to get, or “phish,” personal information out of people through e-mails or Web sites.
For example, you might receive an e-mail from eBay.com asking to re-enter personal information because the company is updating their database. The victim then clicks on the link that will send them to a Web site that looks identical to eBay’s. The victim then gives their information to this posed Web site and later finds that eBay did not send the e-mail, and false charges appear on their credit card bill.
Phishers can also pose as credit card companies, offering great interest rates for their cards through e-mails. After clicking on their link, you are referred to a fake Web site where your information is stolen.
Gordon recommends that if you’re going to apply for a credit card online, make sure you go to their known Web site.
“Don’t respond to someone e-mailing you for that great interest rate because you … can’t verify who that company is,” she said.
“(All the scams) look very legitimate. You wouldn’t believe the things they come up with to lure you in.”
Gordon said that one thing all student should do to protect themselves is to be familiar with their credit reports. Many college students are only beginning to establish their credit. Because of this, the effects of identity theft can be especially distressing.
Monitoring your report can help you catch any fraudulent activity before it’s too late.
“When you get out of college and you need to apply for that dream job, they’re going to look at your credit report,” said Gordon. “They want to see if you’re financially savvy, how you manage your own financial life.”
A new federal law, called the Fair Credit Reporting Act, states that every person has the right to view their credit report for free once a year from each of the three credit bureaus. Students can view their reports on www.annualcreditreport.com starting June 1, 2005. Until then, students can visit www.freecreditreport.com for a free report.