Nov 7, 2006

Who am I? Protect your identity

by Joshua King
With the advent of modern technology such as computers and the Internet, criminals are continually acquiring newer and different methods to steal money and property. People lock their front doors to keep them out of their homes. They lock their cars to keep them from stealing their vehicles. They keep their wallets and purses as close as they can. But how well do people protect their own identities? 

“When someone steals your identity, it is the theft of something you hold close and personal,” said Professor Stephen Parke, assistant professor of criminal justice. “It’s not just that someone has stolen from you. It is that someone has actually smudged your name and then you have to deal with the effects.”

Unfortunately, the concept of identity theft may seem like something out of a spy novel to many people, when, in fact, it is dangerous reality. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in 2005 more than 5,100 people in Virginia discovered just how real identity theft could be when their identities were stolen. Of that total, 29 percent, also the largest percentage, were college-age adults ranging from 18 to 29. 

Why are college students so susceptible to identity theft? Much of the reason is due to the availability of students’ personal information.

“One factor is the high degree of socialization among this generation (i.e., Facebook or MySpace) where the evidence exists that this generation releases a lot of personal information into a world forum,” said Kendrick Brunson, an assistant professor of business.

Another factor is the way in which personal information is handled. For example, the majority of college students receive credit card offers on a weekly basis. These offers usually end up being thrown away, and often without first being shredded. It only takes one criminal going “dumpster diving” to obtain the discarded information.

“Most people would not think of digging through a smelly garbage can to locate credit card numbers, but ambitious thieves who have a strong profit motive don’t mind,” said Brunson.

Once identity thieves have obtained your credit card offers, they can send in the application with your name already pre-printed. They are then able to run up a bill under your name and have the bill sent to a separate address.

Debit cards are also a prime target for identity thieves. Debit cards, unlike credit cards, do not require any identification other than your personal identification number (PIN). While you are withdrawing cash from an ATM, criminals can simply look over your shoulder or use a camera phone to get your PIN. Once they have that, all they have to do is steal your debit card.

While the threat of identity theft is ever present on college campuses, there are several easy steps students can take in order to safeguard their personal information. The first is just being aware of the danger.

“Be mindful that you have something of value and that there are people in our society who want to take it from you,” said Parke.

Students must then be willing to take the time for a few simple precautions. These include shredding your credit card bills and offers, checking your monthly bank statements and protecting your PIN number. It is also important to keep a close eye on your credit cards.

“Know where your credit cards are at all times and, sad to say, don’t trust even your best friends to guard the security of those cards,” said Brunson.

Students must also keep in mind that even if they do fall prey to identity theft, the consequences are not as short-lived as one might think.

“You have to take the time to clear your name,” said Parke. “There are systems in place to help you do that, but it is something that will taint you and hang on to you for quite a few years.”

Contact Joshua King at

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