A Primer in Higher Ed Cybersecurity

College is certainly an exciting—and somewhat unnerving—time for young people. Besides the grueling academic requirements, many students are on their own for the first time. Heading off to college not only means late-night study sessions or writing research papers, it means cooking for yourself, finding time to head to the laundromat, and navigating your social life without your parents looking over your shoulder.

There’s another aspect of life that college students are now responsible for: identity protection and data security. Until you left home, it was usually up to your parents to fill out forms, lock up your Social Security number, and make sure the family computer had anti-virus protection. But those tasks are now your responsibility, so here are a few things to keep in mind about cybersecurity.

  1. Your identity is at risk – For years, college kids were bombarded with credit card offers, so much so that it’s worked its way into movies depicting college life. Everywhere you looked, another bank was offering free gifts, free food, t-shirts, and other incentives to get you to fill out a form. 

Fortunately, legislation has been passed to curb the nearly-predatory tactics of enticing young people with credit cards. It was largely to help protect students who’d had no experience with credit cards and would find themselves facing insurmountable debt, but it was also due to the hiring practices of the banks. The people hawking credit card offers were often freelance contractors who’d had no training or background checks, yet students happily handed over their applications to these strangers, complete with their entire identities in print. 

Remember, don’t hand out your sensitive personal identifiable information to anyone without a good reason, and without knowing where it will end up. And do your homework before applying for any kind of account or credit card in order to make sure you’re getting the best deal. 

  1. Your accounts are at risk – Speaking of your accounts, many college students head off to school with their first credit card, their first checking account, and their first public utility accounts. It’s absolutely vital that you make sure those accounts are secured with a PIN number for phone communications or a password for online activity. While protecting your bank account with a strong, unique password might seem like common sense, too many people forget to be as careful with something like their electric company account. 

Your password is only as strong as the number of people who may accidentally find it or who may guess it. Protect all of your accounts with a password that no one—not even a computer—could guess, and by only using each of them on one account. 

  1. Your technology is at risk – College has changed a lot in just one generation, and there’s probably no greater proof of that than your technology needs. It was a big deal just twenty years ago to have your own desktop computer in your dorm room, and colleges enticed new students with 24-hour monitored computer labs, computer stations in the residence halls, and more. 

Now, your back-to-school list probably includes a laptop, a tablet, a smartphone, an external hard drive, and several remote desktop accounts for submitting your classwork from anywhere. While your university bookstore will still sell scantron sheets and “blue books,” you’re more likely to take all of your tests online, even for a face-to-face class. 

Make sure you’re protecting all of that important hardware with passcodes, passwords, and even two-step authentication. Don’t leave your laptop lying around with it turned on where someone could bypass your password, and be sure your portable devices have the “find my device” feature enabled. 

  1. Your academic standing is at risk – Filesharing and downloading illegal content can get you kicked out of school. While the act of sharing a file isn’t always illegal, it certainly is when the content is copyrighted. If you purchase an ebook version of your textbook, for example, and a classmate asks you to screen shot it and share it, that’s theft; it could very well cost you your academic standing. 

Even more alarming, if you’re offered the chance to receive answers to coursework online, you might actually be installing a virus, malware, ransomware, or other harmful software to your computer. At best, your schoolwork is gone once your device is locked by malicious software; at worst, a scammer can now extort you to do anything he wants in order to keep from reporting you to the university or the authorities. 

Remember, school policies exist to keep you safe, not to make your life miserable. Any illegal downloading—especially if it’s conducted on the college’s network—will get you kicked out of most schools. 

  1. Your future is at risk – Most college students enter school with the goal of ending up with a degree. But that degree will be useless if your social media profiles contain content that employers cannot overlook. 

While college is a time to explore new avenues and try new experiences, posting about all of your experiences on social media is never a good idea. You don’t want the embarrassment of landing your first real job interview, only to be asked about those pictures from spring break. Remember the most important truth about the internet, especially social media: nothing is ever private, and nothing is ever deleted.

Anyone can be a victim of identity theft, anyone can use our services, and anyone can help us help others. If you found this information useful, please consider donating to the Identity Theft Resource Center to help us keep our services free to the public.




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