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College is a time when students start taking steps toward being financially independent and building their credit history. Unfortunately, it's also a time when they become particularly vulnerable to identity theft.

According to a study released last year, college student identity theft isn't more likely to happen to consumers aged 20 to 29, but the damage done tends to be worse because it isn't caught quickly. Most college students do not monitor credit reports, invest in credit monitoring services or have the other checks and balances in place that older generations have developed over time. That means they're often not aware of the theft until they are contacted by a debt collector or denied credit.

Follow these precautions to avoid identity theft before it damages your future.

Guard Your Social Security Number

College students are particularly susceptible to identity theft when universities use Social Security numbers (SSNs) for student IDs or professors use them to post grades. Most schools have stopped using SSNs as an identifier. If your school or professor prints your SSN on your student ID card or uses it to publicly post grades, ask them to use an alternate identifier.

You also shouldn't carry your Social Security card in your wallet. Have your number memorized in case you need it to apply for a job or open a bank account and keep your Social Security card in a safe place. If another business or organization requests your SSN, ask if you can provide an alternate identifier like a student ID number or drivers license number, or just the last four digits of your SSN.

Invest in a cross-cut shredder and shred mail and university documents with identifying information, including name, address and account numbers. Thieves often gather seemingly benign identifying information then use it to access more. For instance, a thief might go through your trash and find your name, address and an empty envelope from your bank. With that information, they call you, pretending to be an employee of the bank alerting you to suspicious activity on your account. They ask you to verify your identity over the phone, and you unwittingly give them your SSN. Now, the thief has everything they need to open up a credit card in your name.

Avoid Card Skimmers

Card skimmers are readers that can be attached to payment terminals and ATMs, harvesting data from the card's magnetic stripe for every cardholder who uses the machine. Once a thief lifts data from your card, they use it to create a cloned card and access your bank account.

Before using your credit or debit card at a gas station or ATM, compare the terminal to others nearby or check for signs of manipulation. The skimmer may be a different color or material, be crooked or have graphics that aren't aligned correctly. Wiggle the card reader and keyboard to see if they are securely attached. Whenever possible, use ATMs located inside banks or grocery stores, where thieves have less opportunity to tamper with machines.

Check Balances Regularly

Most college students are digital natives who receive bank and credit card statements electronically. As convenient as it is to receive electronic statements, it's also easy to avoid reviewing them on a regular basis. Get into the habit of checking credit card and bank account activity at least monthly to scan for errors or unauthorized charges.

For extra security, set up alerts on your accounts. You can receive an e-mail or text message whenever a transaction posts or when your available balance dips below a certain threshold. You can also download your bank's mobile app to check your bank balance and transactions on a regular basis.

Watch Out for Phone and E-mail Phishing Scams

Phishing scams target consumers of all ages, but some are aimed directly at college students. Last year, the FBI released a public service announcement alerting college students to a new "work from home" phishing scheme designed to gather bank account information from college students under the guise of setting up direct deposits.

Other hoaxes might involve receiving an e-mail asking you to confirm a password or a threatening phone call from "the IRS" saying you owe additional taxes. These calls and e-mails often look and sound convincing, but be careful about giving out personal information.

Never click on unexpected e-mails or give out personal information over the phone. If you believe the e-mail or phone call might be legitimate, log in to your bank's website using their regular web address or call the number on the back of your card.

Check Credit Reports Regularly

Checking your credit report is a good habit to get into. Request a free credit report annually from each of the three credit reporting bureaus to check for errors. Set a calendar reminder on your phone, perhaps to coincide with the end of the school year. To order a credit report from each of the three bureaus, visit Look out for other websites that claim they will provide a free credit report but require you to sign up for other services.

Your college years may be one of the best and most memorable periods in your life. Make sure they're not memorable for the wrong reasons. Take steps to avoid identity theft and problems that can follow you long after graduation.

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