Putting your financial future in your child’s hands?

Dear Mr. Dad: My son is starting college–more than 1000 miles from home–in the fall. He’s a remarkably responsible young man when it comes to academics and getting jobs. But he’s hopelessly naive about things like identity theft, credit card fraud, and the like. I don’t want to panic him but I think he needs to know a little bit more about how the world works. How can we convince him to pay more attention to his own security?

A: Well, the good news is that you and your son are absolutely typical of parents and young adults these days. Unfortunately, that’s also the bad news.

I had a horrifyingly eye-opening conversation with Robert Siciliano, a college and personal security expert. According to Bob, four out of five Americans will be the victims of some kind of theft or fraud during their lifetime. Most adults say they’re concerned about things like identity theft and they’ve taken steps like installing antivirus and Internet protection software on their computers and shredding personal documents. And about 80 percent of parents of college kids say they’ve talked with their children about these and other safety precautions. Sadly, the majority of the kids themselves seem to be suffering from a serious case of “it can’t happen to me” syndrome.

A recent survey by the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC) found that while most students use antivirus or other software protection, they’re pretty lackadaisical about nearly everything else. They share online passwords with each other and have no problem posting personal information online. Only half say they shred personal documents; 44 percent are concerned with having their personal belongings (including valuables like that expensive laptop and mp3 player you just bought) stolen, 40 percent regularly leave their apartment or dorm doors unlocked, and only 34 percent are worried about walking alone on campus at night.

One might argue that these kids are almost adults and need to learn to live with the consequences of the choices they make. We could debate whether that kind of tough-love approach is appropriate. But what’s not debatable is the fact that what your son, my 19-year old daughter who’s also starting college this month, and millions of other young adults do or don’t do can have a huge impact on you. Chances are your name and personal information are on some financial aid forms, maybe you co-signed a credit card or an apartment lease, or maybe you sent your child a check for expenses. So when he goes out for the evening and leaves his dorm room open, he’s putting you at risk too.

So what to do?

  • Talk to your children. They need to understand that, no, these things don’t happen only to other people. In fact, 30 percent of the complaints received by the ITRC come from 18-29 year olds.
  • Shred (no, not the skateboard kind). Thieves have no problem digging through your trash looking for old bills and other juicy pieces of personal information.
  • Drop letters in a mailbox or pay bills on line. Leaving an envelope with a check and a credit card number on your porch is begging for trouble.
  • Use the right pen. Ever heard of check washing? Most ordinary pen ink can be erased, which means if a thief gets hold of a check you’ve signed, he or she can clean you out. Uni-ball has a line of pens that use a special gel ink that soaks into the paper, making check washing impossible. Definitely worth the two bucks.
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