Tempe detectives: College students easy target for identity theft

College students are just as prone to identity theft as anyone else, according to Tempe Police.

Arizona has one of the highest incidents of identity theft, Tempe Police Lt. Scott Smith said.

“We ask that the community take an active step in preventing themselves from becoming a victim of crime,” Smith said.

The Tempe Police Department provided one opportunity for the public to do so on Nov. 16, when it held its biannual event Shred-It: Help Protect Yourself from Identity Theft. It gave residents a safe place to dispose of personal documents free of charge. Officers were on site to provide more information about identity theft prevention.

Detectives Dan Brown and Jeff Lane of the Tempe Police Department Crime Prevention Unit said they aim to bring more awareness to the risk of identity theft, especially for college students. Identity theft is common among college roommates, Brown and Lane said.

“You could actually be a victim and never even know it,” Lane said. “Don’t think that you’re too young.”

Global agribusiness senior Allison Tucker’s debit card information was stolen in early November. Tucker received a notification from her bank stating that local authorities discovered her information had been compromised, and the bank was able to deactivate the card before her money was spent.

“I use my debit card everywhere,” Tucker said. “I have accounts with Hulu, Netflix and Amazon, and I buy a ton of stuff online (through private vendors).”

Tucker said she considered her online accounts being the reason someone was able to get hold of her card information.

One of the ways the Tempe Police Department advises preventing identity theft is by regularly checking the mailbox. Credit card companies often send cards with the recipient’s name already printed on it, advertising easy activation by dialing a phone number.

The mailboxes in college dormitories and apartments are typically communal and can be unlocked from behind with one key. Once unlocked, there is available access to each person’s mail, inactivated credit cards and personal information, which thieves will sell to others, Lane said.

“How do you know that they’re there?” Lane said. “You don’t, so you never know that they’re missing. Somebody stole them, and now they are using your name.”

These pre-approved credit cards and junk mail can be stopped by visiting Optoutprescreen.com, Lane said.

A growing trend of identity theft is known as “skimming,” which is where a store clerk or server at a restaurant takes a customer’s card to run a payment and swipes the card on an illegal device. The device then collects the card’s encoded information, Brown said.

Brown was a victim of skimming and said his card was used to make a payment in Mexico.

Lane advised using a credit card instead of a debit card while on vacation or in an unfamiliar area. If a credit card is stolen and used, the money is more likely to be reimbursable, whereas money spent on a debit card is harder to get back, Lane said.

If a card is stolen, the Tempe Police Department suggests putting a “flag” on the account, or filing a complaint, by visiting the Federal Trade Commision’s website. Once a flag is put on an account, law enforcement nationwide can track the card’s activity and eventually find the user through card transactions and store surveillance videos.

Lane said the 2013 film “Identity Thief,” starring Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy, is very realistic. It can take three years to clear a name once one has become a victim of identity theft, Lane said.

“These criminals are very adept to doing a lot of damage quickly,” Smith said.

Free credit reports are also offered once a year by Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Brown suggests taking advantage of this offer as one more preventative step.

“The whole key is just being diligent, monitor(ing) your credit, check(ing) your online banking, and shredding (personal documents),” Brown said.


Reach the reporter at vivankic@asu.edu or follow her on Twitter @VictoriaIvankic