College students can be prime targets for cybercriminals. See how to protect yourself.
As you prepare to start your first year at college, you have so many things to consider, and they’re all mixed in with a combination of excitement and apprehension about embarking on this new chapter of your life.
Something you may not have given much thought yet is keeping your identity, data and connected devices secure. You might feel you’re too young or anonymous to be a victim of a cyberattack. After all, with billions of people in the world, why would a cybercriminal be interested in you?
Unfortunately, you might be a prime target for hackers for many reasons, including the following:
- College students typically aren’t well-educated regarding cyber threats and often don’t have adequate safeguards in place to protect themselves.
- Younger individuals frequently use social media platforms to share private information about themselves. Fraudsters can harvest this data and use it later for an attack.
- College students tend to have many types of connected devices. And lots of devices give hackers more avenues to attack. Plus, it can be more difficult to protect and keep track of multiple devices than a single device.
- Cybercriminals thrive on a distracted audience. With all the things vying for your attention at college, it’s easier for a cybercriminal to slip past your guard.
- Young adults usually have good credit or no credit. Either way, that’s a win for cybercriminals. Having a relatively clean or new credit report—in other words, one that’s not marred by red flags—gives identity thieves a smoother path to use your information to open accounts in your name.
So, now that you know why you may be a target for cybercriminals, let’s talk about what you can do to protect yourself. Don’t worry. These steps aren’t difficult. And applying them can give you some peace of mind during your college years and beyond.
Rely on multi-factor authentication (MFA): While there’s no single step that will prevent you from being a cybercrime victim, taking advantage of MFA is one of the most important things you can do.
Also known as two-factor authentication, MFA adds another layer of security (in addition to your password) when accessing your email, social media, financial and other types of accounts. The most common example is a one-time code sent by a text message or email.
So, that means a cybercriminal would need to know your password and have access to your phone or email in order to successfully access your account.
Use a strong, unique password for every account: You’ve probably heard this advice before. But it’s really important. Why? Because if you rely on the same password for every account, a hacker can gain access to all of your accounts by deciphering the password for one of them. And instead of dealing with a relatively minor issue, it could potentially spiral into something much worse.
When creating passwords, it’s best to make them long—like a phrase that’s easy for you to remember, but hard for anyone else to guess.
If it seems overwhelming to have a complex password for every account on top of everything else you need to remember at school, why not use a password manager? This application will securely store all your passwords, and even create unique, hard-to-guess passwords for you. Then you just have to remember your master password.
Be careful who you trust: You’ll be exposed to a lot of new people at college. While most will be trustworthy, it can be difficult to pick out the ones who may have ulterior motives.
So, as a general practice, be selective about the individuals with whom you share your personal identifiable information (PII) such as your name, address, phone number, Social Security number, birthdate and account numbers, as well as more personal details about your life and background.
If someone—even from a legitimate organization such as your university, bank or health center—requests this information, don’t be embarrassed to ask if it’s truly necessary for them to have it.
Also, be watchful for phishing emails, texts or phone calls in which someone pretends to be from a legitimate organization (or even a personal contact) and tries to lure you into revealing PII. And be especially careful about clicking on links or opening attachments because they could contain malware.
Keep your software up to date: Speaking of trust, don’t rely on your college’s IT department alone to protect you. Make sure you keep the operating systems, browsers and applications up to date for all your devices. Doing this, as well as using a reputable anti-virus product, can help ward off a malware infection.
Back up your data: At college, you’re going to have more important stuff on your computer than you’ve ever had in your life. So, back up that information regularly to an external hard drive or the cloud to protect against online threats, as well as more mundane things like file corruption and spilled coffee. You can make this easier by looking for a system that will automatically perform backups for you.
Avoid public Wi-Fi: Part of college life is seemingly always being on the move. And public Wi-Fi or hotspots make it so easy to connect along the way. But these systems usually provide weak protection, and they’re a magnet for hackers, too.
A better idea for accessing the internet outside your dorm? Create a personal hotspot with your phone or use a Virtual Private Network (VPN). Both will encrypt your internet traffic and keep prying eyes away.
Lock it up: It may seem like a hassle. But locking your computer or phone when you’re away from it—even for a minute or two—while you’re in public is a smart way to protect yourself. This includes when you’re in seemingly safe places, such as the library. It doesn’t require much time for someone to snare personal information from your unattended device.
Cover your webcam: Yes, that same webcam you use to visit with friends, family and peers can be exploited by hackers to spy on your activities, as well as capture personal data about you. And it’s possible to do this even when the webcam indicator light is off. So, when you’re not using your webcam, place a webcam cover over it. If you don’t have one, just put a piece of paper or tape over it.
Register your devices with the campus police: Taking this action can make it easier to get back devices that were lost or stolen, as well as file a police report about missing devices.
At Morgan Stanley, we hope your college experience will be a safe one— and one of the best times of your life. If you’re interested in learning more about cybersecurity protection, please visit Morgan Stanley's Security Center.