Colleges confront identity theft

(U-WIRE) WASHINGTON – Applying for a loan online; buying textbooks at the campus bookstore; checking your grades on the Internet. What may seem like everyday tasks for a typical college student could also provide easy access for someone to steal your identity.

Identity theft is the fastest growing crime in America, with 900,000 new victims each year. Thieves obtain information such as a name, Social Security number, credit card number or other identifying information usually off of the Internet to make purchases and pretend to be you. Some imposters may rack up credit card debt and even criminal charges in your name.

Recognizing the need for more security to protect private information, the federal government has stepped in. The U.S. Senate is expected to debate legislation that would force data brokers to disclose to residents when their personal information has been stolen.

The need for tougher safeguards was noticed after Choicepoint, an Atlanta based company that compiles personal information and court records from millions of Americans, was breached last year. Crooks were able to steal personal information from nearly 145 thousand people. The “Choicepoint amendment” would also require stricter procedures to detect and prevent identity fraud.

Colleges around the country are facing a similar issue. According to the U.S. Department of Education, “as a student, you may even be more vulnerable to identity theft because of the availability of personal data and the way many students handle this data.”

Many schools use social security numbers as a primary means of identifying students. This information is often placed on the Internet, where computer hackers could easily obtain personal information about students, faculty and staff. According to the financial data surveyor Bankrate.com, 48 percent of students have had their grades posted by Social Security number.

“Many times it is the only identification a person has and if it’s available on some paper, of course the nastier elements of society could use them for criminal activity,” says George Washington University student Sai Pradhan. “The only thing that consoles me is that they’ll probably get a thousand other people before me.”

But colleges are taking measures to protect students and faculty from having their personal information fall into the wrong hands.

The George Washington University is preparing to reduce the use of social security numbers as student identification. Last fall, the university created a committee to explore new ways to identify students and staff that would lessen the risk of identity theft. Currently, most students use their social security numbers for such regular activities as checking grades, researching articles online, or registering for class.

The transition comes after pressure from both students and faculty into finding alternatives.

“I think it’s a good idea to use other identification means rather than social security numbers to avoid misuse of information,” says George Washington University student Chuck Davis. “Otherwise it could easily fall into the wrong hands.”

Some universities have already implemented such change. Howard University is one of the growing number of schools that does not use social security numbers as student identification. Instead, the school provides students with randomly generated numbers.

“We are very conscious of possibility that [identity theft] could happen, but we are very vigilant in protecting students and faculty,” says Howard University Interim Vice Provost Dr. Charles Moore. “We are being proactive and monitoring it as closely as we can to see if someone is even attempting to compromise the integrity of our database.”

Although the school does not use Social Security numbers as student identification, the information is used for tax related paperwork, and when students apply for federal financial aid such as grants and loans. To protect the information, Moore says the university has installed two firewall systems and conduct routine audits to make sure the database is still secure.

“It’s an important issue, and it’s our job at Howard to protect interests of students and faculty,” Moore says.

And while completely eliminating the use of social security numbers on college campuses is virtually impossible, there are ways that students can protect themselves from identity theft. The U.S. Department of Education recommends keeping close tabs on your personal information, monitoring your credit accounts carefully and if your social security number is used as your student ID, making sure you know where it is at all times.

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