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Internet safety guide for college students

College students face online threats every day. Protect your private data and your identity by taking some simple internet safety steps.
Written by Genevieve Carlton, Contributor

Corporations invest billions into protecting private data. Globally, the cybersecurity services market brought in $173 billion in 2020. However, cybersecurity isn't only a concern for government agencies and major corporations. Hackers and scammers also target individuals, including college students. Fortunately, college students can protect their private data and improve their internet safety without a corporate-sized budget.

This internet safety guide walks through the steps you can take to improve your data security and protect your private data. From identifying red flags to avoiding common scams, college students can often avoid online threats for free.

Why is cybersecurity awareness important?

Internet safety matters––particularly for college students. Take identity theft, for example. Victims of identity theft may see their credit score tank. That can make it harder to qualify for an apartment, apply to certain jobs, or take out a car loan. And bad credit can follow students for years after graduation.

College students need to prioritize cybersecurity awareness. By taking a few simple steps, students can protect their private data and decrease the chances of falling for a phishing scam, putting private information at risk, or becoming the victim of identity theft.

Why hackers target college students

Hackers target college students because of their unique vulnerabilities. For example, scammers focus on college students because of their social media use, lax monitoring, and poor cybersecurity awareness.

Social media use: College students tend to include a large amount of personally identifiable information on social media. Hackers can use this information to guess passwords or the answers to common security questions.

Lax monitoring: For many people, college represents the first time they open credit cards or manage their own bank accounts. And some college students fail to keep a close eye on their finances. That means they miss fraudulent charges. Similarly, college students might not check their credit report or find out if scammers stole their identity. 

Poor cybersecurity awareness: College students, like everyone else, worry about data theft. But most Americans fail to follow safety practices to secure their information. Many simply see data breaches and cyberattacks as an unavoidable fact of modern life.

Common online threats towards college students

College students face many of the same online threats as the general public, including phishing scams and fraudulent shopping sites. However, certain scams target college students. This section introduces the common online threats that college students face. 


A phishing scam tricks people into revealing private data or downloading malware. Many criminals target colleges with phishing scams because college email addresses often follow a predictable format that includes the student's name. 

Students might receive emails that look official and ask them to confirm personal data or messages claiming they won a prize or lottery and must click on a link to claim their prize. These scams harm millions of victims every year.

Fraudulent shopping sites

Fake shopping sites trick students into entering their personal information, including credit card numbers. And fraudulent shopping sites target more than your data. Some send products that may be unsafe.

College students are vulnerable to fake shopping sites because these criminals target students. Fake sites might be advertised on social media that targets students. These sites often look legitimate because they steal product photos to imitate real online shopping sites.

Job scams

College students invest a lot of time into looking for jobs. But criminals use fraudulent job postings to capture private information. These job scams convince students to enter their Social Security number and other data. Some scammers even reach out with unsolicited job or interview offers. However, these scams are actually phishing attempts disguised as job postings.

Students should watch out for warning signs of a fishy job posting. A very high guaranteed salary, very low job requirements, or a demand that applicants pay a fee for their interview can indicate a scam.

Romance fraud

Social media and dating website fraud can trick students into providing personal information or sending strangers money. Romance frauds hook students through catfishing, where scammers pretend to be someone else online. These scammers may spend weeks or months building an online relationship with college students before asking for money or personal information. Students can protect themselves from romance fraud by limiting the information on their profile and using a throwaway email address.

Reporting cybersecurity threats

If you identify a cybersecurity threat, report it to your college's IT department or information security office. Most colleges provide information about how to report a threat and what to include in your report.

What if you fall for a scam or criminals steal your identity? You can protect yourself in several ways. First, report cybercrimes to law enforcement. Filing a police report can also help you recover money and protect your identity. Second, notify your financial institutions and freeze your accounts. Your bank can help you cancel your credit cards or take additional steps. Finally, notify credit reporting agencies and monitor your credit to remove any fraudulent reports.

Tips and tricks for avoiding hackers

College students can take simple steps to avoid hackers and protect their privacy. From spotting red flags to avoiding unsecured wifi networks, here are some easy tips and tricks to make your data safer. 

Learn phishing red flags

Hackers use phishing scams to trick people into sharing private data. In one of the most common phishing scams, hackers claim to be from a reputable company, including government agencies. Their emails ask people to enter private information, like their birth date, Social Security number, or credit card number. Hackers then use that information to steal someone's identity.

You can avoid phishing scams by looking for red flags, including incorrect grammar or spelling, fake-looking URL or email addresses, or high-pressure attempts to convince readers to click on a link. And phishing goes beyond email––watch out for phishing attacks on social media, by phone, and through text message.

Use caution when shopping online

Some scammers use fake online shopping deals to trick people into entering credit card information. Instead of jumping on a deal that sounds too good to be true, take a few steps to verify the seller. Reviews posted on third-party sites such as the Better Business Bureau might indicate a scam. Using a debit-type gift card can also protect buyers from risking their credit score by falling for an online shopping scam.

Install antivirus software

A computer virus can destroy your data and disable your computer. Antivirus software identifies malware and other viruses to prevent your devices from becoming corrupted. You can protect yourself by installing antivirus software from a trusted company like Norton or McAfee. 

In addition to using antivirus protection on your laptop or desktop, consider installing antivirus software on other devices connected to the internet, including your cell phone and tablet.  

Follow password best practices

A strong password can prevent hackers from accessing your private data. Instead of reusing the same password on multiple platforms, use unique passwords to avoid damaging data breaches. Fortunately, you don't need to remember every single password. Instead, use a password manager to keep track of your passwords.

Set up two-factor authentication

Two-factor authentication adds an extra layer of security. Instead of simply logging in with a username and password, users must authenticate their identity through a second source, such as a code sent to their cell phone or an email link.

Change your password after a breach

Data breaches can compromise your passwords. And most people do not change their password after a data breach. By changing your password, you can prevent hackers from accessing private data. The site Have I Been Pwned lets people check whether a data breach has affected their accounts.

Beware of unsecured wifi

Unfamiliar and unsecured wifi can put your data at risk. Cybercriminals can access these networks to steal your information. Many colleges offer unsecured wifi access on campus.

How can you avoid unsecured wifi? First, choose a secured network if possible. Second, reduce your potential exposure by using a VPN on an unsecured network. Finally, avoid entering personal data like credit card information while using an unsecured network.

Add physical protection

Antivirus software, VPNs, and password managers protect your data from online intrusions. But you should also protect the physical safety of your devices. That means using passcodes to access your devices and protecting your devices from theft. Avoid leaving devices unattended on a college campus or in any other public space. Use a cable lock on your laptop, put it away when not in use, and lock your dorm room or car. 

Take care on shared computers

College students often use shared computers to write papers, conduct research, or search the internet. But computers available to the public in the campus library and computer lab do not have the same protections as private computers. You can protect your data on shared computers by not saving passwords and clearing your browser history. Use caution when making online purchases or logging into accounts with private data through a shared computer.

What are key threats to student safety in online learning environments?

Students in online learning environments must protect themselves against threats like cyberbullying, ransomware, phishing, and other threats to their internet safety. College students taking online classes should avoid sharing personal information or other forms of student data to protect themselves from identity theft and other cybercrimes.

Are college networks secure?

Colleges use security methods to protect their networks. However, many colleges offer public wifi access, which can potentially expose student data. When using a college network, students should implement their own security measures, such as using a VPN.

How students can stay safe on the internet?

Internet safety starts with awareness of potential online threats. Students can avoid phishing scams, malware, and other cyberattacks by knowing how to spot a threat. College students should also use secure passwords, avoid inputting personal data on shared computers, and protect their computing devices.

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