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Davis, California

Saturday, February 24, 2024

Identity thieves target college students

Lauren Beaudin, a second-year civil engineering major, left her car parked on a typical street in Davis. It wasn’t there for long before crooks broke in and stole her wallet.

By the time she checked online, her banking statement showed over $600 of purchases made in only 20 minutes.

Identity theft can devastate college students. It can leave them penniless and unable to support themselves, and in the long-term can ruin credit scores. Dave Edwards, a local enforcement officer for the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office, assures students that any attack can be handled with the proper information.

Crooks steal information with a limitless number of schemes, and the uninformed can always fall for them.

Twenty-year-old Beaudin knew just how to react in her situation.

“It wasn’t the money that upset me considering I had it all refunded,” Beaudin said. “It was just the annoyance of closing accounts and opening new ones.”

Naturally, she contacted the bank and immediately canceled her stolen debit card.

However, more effective methods of identity theft can happen without your awareness. Today’s technology makes this easy, and the tricks are more clever than breaking a car window.

According to Edwards, there are methods directed specifically at college students.

Targeting students attempting to sublet their apartments, thieves may pose as incoming students and fill online vacancy listings. In one case, after sending in a rent check, a thief sent an email explaining how his parents put too much money on the check, and humbly requested that the difference be wired back.

The victim complied and wired the money from her own account. However, the check was a counterfeit. At this point, nothing could be done to reimburse the victim.

“You need to make good on that whole check,” Edwards said.

Job-hunting college students also make great targets, according to Edwards. The format for online applications can easily be copied and reconstructed to match a local business’s.

Fake applications will request your social security number (SSN), insisting it’s for a background check. Edwards suggested always talking in-person to the manager of the job you’re applying for. This is another example of how a reasonable request is used to extort information.

Criminals can go a long way with just your SSN and name. Ever been asked to sign up for a credit card at Kmart or Walmart? Your SSN and a fake ID with your name is the only requirement needed for someone else to sign you up.

Having your SSN stolen has lasting effects — some people’s SSN’s have been floating around on the internet for years, Edwards said. SSN’s cannot be changed and there isn’t much a victim can do but keep close tabs on their credit for the rest of his or her life.

Beaudin’s case of credit card theft, classified as a data breach, is one of the oldest tricks. Edwards said data breaches involve the physical theft of “low-hanging fruit.” Mail, cell phones, laptops, wallets and blank checks can all be stolen and used against you.

Cell phones and laptops store emails and saved passwords — data that can easily be used to access your web accounts. Edwards urges that you tighten the security on these devices. Lock your cars; better yet, don’t store devices in your car at all.

Mail carelessly thrown away can also be dug up by dumpster divers. Credit card applications are a popular choice. Properly dispose of any mail that may contain personal information. If you’re not sure, shred it.

In an interview, Edwards pulled out a laminated print-out of an email. The logo for Chase Bank was printed at the top. Throughout the email’s text, he pointed out the “buzzwords” that should signal redflags: A request to “verify” or “confirm” your information, and the insistence that your account needs to be “reactivated” with your card number.

The crooks want you to feel upset and obligated to respond. Even text messages can been used for this purpose. Sometimes, the messages provide a fake callback number to convince you of their legitimacy.

These attacks will often come under the guise of a trusted authority. One bold method involves posing as the FBI, locking your computer with malware and promising to unlock your device after receiving a hefty fee.

Edwards mentioned that you should never wire money to anyone you don’t know personally.

“Be stingy with personal information,” Edwards said. “If something seems suspicious, get a second opinion from a friend or family member.”

No matter how careful you are, some methods cannot be prevented. Portable devices known as skimmers, resembling the slots a cashier slides your credit card through, can be carried in a crook’s pocket.

These devices store your credit card information, name and PIN number. A known scam involves their use by waiters and waitresses. Throughout their shift, they can swipe several cards through a skimmer as they go to ring up a bill.

A similar method involves a tiny, Bluetooth-enabled skimmer placed behind the ATM card readers at gas pumps.

Edwards said the best defense against these attacks can be using a credit card instead of a debit card. Using a credit card is essentially like making a small loan; any fraudulent charges can be reported and reversed if you catch them quick enough. With a debit card, the money is taken directly from your account and can leave you broke before you know it.

If the attack cannot be prevented, the most effective defense is to frequently check your banking statements and credit reports.

“[Most students go through] their entire college career without looking at their credit report,” said Christina Blackman, marketing manager at Yolo Federal Credit Union.

Blackman suggested checking your credit score every few months.

Edwardsechoed this suggestion. For a free service with no catch, he recommended annualcreditreport.com.

Unlike the guys on the commercial who play guitar and sing about free credit reports, Edwards said that this service is actually free and suggested by the Federal Trade Commission.

If you have reason to be paranoid, you can even sign up for a credit monitoring service. These services will regularly keep tabs on your credit score and alert you of any suspicious activity.

In the event of identity theft, filing a police report is necessary to provide proof to any creditors who may need it. For more information on ID theft, check the Federal Trade Commission’s website.


CHAD DAVIS can be reached at features@theaggie.org.


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