Internet Safety for College Students: The Ultimate Guide [2022]

Last edit: September 12, 2022
Internet Safety for College Students: The Ultimate Guide [2022]

Let’s face it…

Cyber safety isn’t the number one concern for college students. That said, recent studies show that hackers are targeting universities and students more frequently. Did you know that private educational institutions receive more malicious emails than any other sector?

Cybercriminals won’t hesitate to steal your sensitive information and hack into your accounts if given a chance. They don’t care if you’re a struggling student without a job. That’s what they look for; they rely on naivety and lack of life experience to fool their victims.

This guide will teach you everything you need to know about staying safe from online criminals. We’ll go into detail about data theft protection, online dating risks, how to protect your bank accounts, social media profiles, and more. 

Let’s get started.

The importance of Internet safety for college students

College students are exposed to various online threats, whether working on assignments, chatting with friends and family, or just relaxing and watching videos. Dangers include viruses, phishing scams, identity theft, cyberbullying, etc.

While it can be tempting to ignore these dangers and hope they’ll simply disappear, the uncomfortable truth is they are very real and can have serious consequences.

Say a college student’s personal information fell into the wrong hands; hackers could use this data to steal the student’s identity or commit fraud. This is why it’s so important that college students understand how to protect themselves, their peers, and their university from cyber threats.

Hackers could use a student’s data to steal their identity or commit fraud.

How much are college students using the Internet?

It comes as no surprise that most teens and college students spend a lot of time online. According to a survey by Common Sense Media:

  • 84% of teens own a smartphone.

  • On average, they use their smartphones for seven hours daily.

  • They watch three hours of online video content per day.

  • 70% of teenage girls use social media every day.

  • 60% of teenagers use computers to complete their homework daily.

Furthermore, a recent study from Frontiers in Psychiatry polled 1,043 college students from King's College London and found that nearly 40% are addicted to their smartphones.

Over seven million US college students enrolled in at least one distance education course, and roughly 3.4 million attended classes exclusively online.

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Since the outbreak of Covid-19, students have been spending more time online than ever before. For many, this means more screen time and less physical interaction with others. While some take advantage of the extra time to connect with friends and family online, others find it difficult to stay connected and motivated. 

The increase in online time has also led to more opportunities for cyberbullying and other negative behaviors. As we continue to adapt to life with Covid-19, we must learn how to keep college students safe and engaged in their learning.

Why are college students prime targets of online scams?

Several factors make undergraduates more vulnerable to online threats, including:

  • Sharing too much personal information. Students often have lots of personal information online, including names, addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses. This makes it easy for scammers to target college students with phishing emails and other scams.

  • They’re unaware of the dangers. Many undergraduates may not be aware of the risks. This lack of understanding makes them vulnerable to personal information requests, such as credit card promotions.

  • They take more risks. College students may be more likely to take risks online, such as clicking on links from unknown sources or meeting strangers in person.

  • They don’t often monitor their accounts. Students begin maintaining their finances and using credit cards in college. Many miss fraudulent transactions and fail to check their credit reports regularly.

A student’s lack of awareness makes them vulnerable to the dangers associated with personal information requests on campus.

Common online risks for college students

There are several safety risks college students face online. Some of the most common dangers include:

  • Cyberbullying — This is a serious problem that can lead to depression, anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts. Cyberbullying among college students is often a continuation of earlier forms of bullying that occurred in middle school or high school.

  • Phishing scams — Phishing scams are emails or text messages that look like they're from a legitimate source but are actually from a scammer. It’s not uncommon for students to receive emails from scammers impersonating school officials and fall into the trap of paying large sums of money.

  • Job scams — Job scammers convince students to provide their social security numbers and other sensitive information. Many scam artists even send unsolicited job offers and interview requests.

  • Identity theft — Identity theft can ruin a student’s credit score, leaving them thousands of dollars in debt.

  • Fraudulent online shopping sites — Students are always looking for great deals online. Thus, they may wind up clicking on links to fraudulent online shopping websites. These sites appear legitimate (as professional photos are used to mimic real e-commerce sites), but they’re often phishing scams.

  • Online dating fraud — Many college students use dating apps such as Tinder to look for love online. Unfortunately, many dating profiles are catfishers — scammers using fake accounts to dupe individuals looking for love to obtain money from them.

  • Campus theft — Theft involving laptops, phones, wallets, etc., is a serious problem on many campuses.  

  • Data breaches — Colleges and universities attract hackers as they store massive quantities of data and personal information. Data includes student grades and the Personal Identifiable Information (PII) of teachers and students. Perpetrators may use techniques like DDoS attacks and Man-in-the-Middle attacks.

  • Malware — Malware (aka malicious software) infects your computer causing severe problems. Undergrad devices are commonly infected with malware as students often download pirated movies, games, programs, and other files.

How to deal with cyberbullying on college campuses

Cyberbullying has become an increasingly prevalent problem on college campuses. Thanks to the widespread use of social media, students find it easier to bully their peers anonymously. 

In many cases, cyberbullying can be just as damaging as traditional bullying, leading to feelings of isolation, depression, and anxiety. Moreover, because cyberbullying can occur anytime, anywhere, it can be difficult for victims to escape their tormentors. 

College administrators and counselors are still trying to figure out the best way to address this problem. In the meantime, victims of cyberbullying need to know that they’re not alone and that plenty of resources are available to help them cope with this difficult situation. 

  • Reach out to a trusted friend or family member for support.

  • Block the person bullying you and report their behavior to the platform administrator.

  • Save any evidence of the bullying (e.g., screenshots of abusive messages). This can be used as proof if further action is required.  

  • Talk to a counselor or other mental health professional if you struggle to cope with the situation.

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Do not hesitate to reach out for help if you experience cyberbullying. There are people who care and will support you through this difficult time.

Phishing prevention tips

A new research study reveals that nearly 90% of institutions are putting students, alumni, and faculty in danger by failing to put email phishing, spoofing, and counterfeit protective measures in place.

As a result, colleges and universities are a large target for cyber attackers armed with fraudulent emails.

It’s not uncommon for a student to receive an email from someone posing as a school official stating that the student has missed their tuition payment.

Scammers threaten victims with severe penalties, such as being dismissed from classes if they don’t pay immediately.

  • Never click on links in emails or messages unless you're sure they're legitimate. Contact the “source” of the email, such as a university, to verify the message if you're unsure.

  • Keep an eye out for signs that indicate phishing. These include misspellings, grammatical errors, and spoofed email addresses.

  • Take caution when giving out private information online. Only give your personal information to websites you trust.

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What should you do if someone steals your identity? 

College students comprise the most frequent victims of identity theft. Identity theft is five times more likely to affect students than the average person. This is because undergrads live in close quarters with one another and don’t take enough safety measures.

For example, college students are susceptible to identity theft as personal information is often left unattended in unlocked dorm rooms. Furthermore, some students don’t bother to protect their smartphones with passwords or biometric identification adequately. In addition, undergraduates often use free Wi-Fi networks that are not always secure.

If someone steals your identity, follow these steps to minimize the damage.

1. Contact Experian, Equifax, and TransUnionthree major credit bureaus and place a fraud alert on your credit report. This will prevent criminals from opening new accounts in your name.

2. Contact your bank and other financial institutions with whom you have accounts. Tell them your identity has been stolen and ask them to freeze your accounts.

3. File a police report and identity theft complaint with the Federal Trade Commission to protect you from future fraud and identity theft.

Identity theft is five times more likely to affect students than the average person.

Follow best practices regarding smartphone safety 

College students are among the most active smartphone users. According to a recent study, nearly 95% of college students own a smartphone and spend 8 to 10 hours per day using it.

The following are some best practices for using smartphones safely in college:

  • Keep your personal devices with you at all times. Smartphones are valuable. It's important to keep them with you whenever possible. Consider carrying them in your front pocket or purse instead of a backpack.

  • Make sure your phone is locked when you're not using it. Set a screen lock password or use biometrics like face recognition or fingerprint security.

  • Be aware of your surroundings. When you're using your smartphone in public, be mindful of your surroundings, including anyone who can see your screen. Avoid using your phone in deserted areas.

  • Enable your phone's security settings. These include automatic updates, data backup, Wi-Fi protection features, remote locking, and phone tracking.

  • Download apps from trusted sources. This includes the App Store for Apple devices and Google Play for Android devices. Fake apps that look legitimate exist; they often contain malware that collects personal information, like social security numbers.

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Neutralize the dangers associated with social media

Most college students are very active on social media. But many don't realize the risks associated with sharing too much information.

For example, if you share your location on social media, criminals can easily find you and familiarize themselves with your schedule. This makes it easy for them to commit crimes like burglary or assault.

You should also be careful about sharing personal information, such as your birth date, address, and phone number. Once this information is out there, it's not easy to take it back. 

To protect yourself on social media:

  • Never share your location on social media. If you want to check in somewhere, do it after you've left.

  • Don't share personal information, such as your address or phone number.

  • Be careful about who you're friending or following on social media. Only add people with whom you’re familiar.

  • Regularly review your privacy settings to ensure that only people you want to see your information can see it.

Be careful about sharing personal information, such as your date of birth, address, or phone number on social media.

Online learning: safety tips for college students

With the rise of online learning, more and more students are opting to take classes remotely. While this has many advantages, it's essential to be aware of the Internet safety risks involved. Here are a few safety tips for college students enrolled in online classes:

  • Only use trusted websites and platforms to participate in online courses.

  • Create strong passwords for all online accounts. Don't use the same password across accounts.

  • Log out of your online accounts when you finish using them.

  • Use a VPN and robust antivirus software like Bitdefender or McAfee.

Online shopping: safety tips for college students

Unfortunately, college students easily fall victim to online shopping scams. Online shopping is popular among today's college students as a result of the pandemic. Take the following precautions to make sure your data remains secure:

  • Only shop on websites you trust. Be wary of sites with pop-ups and ads that seem suspicious.

  • When entering your credit card number or other sensitive information, look for "https://" in the URL, indicating the site uses encryption. Keep an eye out for a padlock icon in the address bar.

  • If using a public Wi-Fi connection, be aware that your information could be compromised. Wait until you're on a secure connection before sharing any sensitive data.

  • Ensure your computer has up-to-date security software to protect against malware and online threats.

College students buy more products online than ever before.

Online dating: safety tips for college students

College students need to be especially careful when it comes to online dating. As many students seek love online, there is no shortage of scammers seeking to capitalize on their feelings.

Cybercriminals often rely on catfishing regarding dating apps. They create false online identities to trick students into financial scams and other fraudulent scenarios.

Safety tips for college students who are looking for love online:

  • Only use reputable dating websites and apps.

  • Do your research before meeting anyone in person.

  • Always meet in a public place and let a friend know where you're going.

  • Don't give out too much personal information.

  • Trust your gut. If something feels strange, it probably is.

Armed with these safety tips, you can remain safe from online predators and enjoy a successful online dating experience.

Be careful in public areas

Be extra careful when using a computer that isn’t yours — for example, in libraries, Internet cafes, and school. Follow these digital safety tips:

  • Beware of unsecured Wi-Fi networks. Public Wi-Fi is often insecure. Try to use it for non-sensitive tasks only. Connect to your Wi-Fi network or use your data plan when possible. Alternatively, use a VPN to encrypt your data while using public Wi-Fi.

  • Don’t store payment info on websites or browsers. When you make online purchases using a public computer or public Wi-Fi network, don’t store your payment information on the website or browser. Doing so only makes it easy for thieves to access your data.

  • Secure laptops and other devices. When you’re not using your computer, lock it. Use a strong password, and don’t leave it in plain sight.

  • Beware of infected devices left on campus. If you find a USB drive or other device on campus (including in your dorm room), don’t plug it into your computer. It could be infected with malware.

  • Avoid using ATMs in public places. Thieves can install skimming devices on ATMs that capture your card information. When possible, use ATMs located inside banks.

Connect to your Wi-Fi network or use your data plan whenever possible. 

General online safety tips for college students

You likely don't have a highly secure campus network that restricts and regulates traffic and new devices, so you're on your own regarding online security. Here are tips regarding how college students can remain safe and privacy-savvy on campus.

Secure your accounts

The best tips for protecting your online accounts include:

  • Use caution when posting online. Before putting anything on the internet, think carefully. Once it's in cyberspace, you can’t remove it. Don’t put anything online that you don't want your family, other students, instructors, or future and present employers to see!

  • Use strong passwords. A strong password should have at least 12 characters and contain a mix of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols. 

  • Don't use the same password across accounts. Use a password manager to store and generate strong passwords for you safely. We recommend password managers such as Bitdefender Password Manager and Norton Password Manager.

  • Always change your password after a data breach. Change your passwords immediately if you think a data breach has exposed your accounts. It’s good practice to change them regularly, as well.

  • Set up two-factor authentication when available. Two-factor authentication is an extra layer of security that requires you to confirm your identity with a code before logging in.

  • Be cautious of email phishing signs: poor grammar, bad design, etc. Avoid clicking on links or downloading attachments from unknown sources. 

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Back up your data and accounts regularly

If a device becomes lost or stolen, you'll want to have a backup of all your data. This includes documents, photos, and other important files. If someone hacks you, you can quickly restore your data to its previous state.

How to back up your data:

  • use an external hard drive or cloud storage service

  • use iCloud for Apple devices and Drive for Android devices

  • use an antivirus software solution with automatic backup features

Review your bank and credit card statements monthly

You can help protect yourself from fraud and identity theft by monitoring your financial accounts. As a college student, staying on top of your spending habits is always a good idea to avoid debt.

Take a break from studying and follow these tips when reviewing your bank and credit card statements:

  • Schedule some time each month to review your statements. Add it to your calendar or set a reminder on your phone so you don't forget.

  • When reviewing statements, compare the transactions to your records. Contact your bank or credit card company immediately if there are any discrepancies.

  • Take note of any unusual or large transactions. This could be a sign of fraud or identity theft.

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You can help protect yourself from fraud and identity theft by monitoring your financial accounts.

Enable pop-up blockers

Pop-up blockers are essential tools that keep your computer safe and secure while browsing the internet, especially if you’re using free Wi-Fi provided on campus. They help protect your computer from malicious pop-ups that sometimes contain viruses or spyware. Eliminating unwanted pop-ups will also speed up your browsing experience.

How to block pop-ups in Google Chrome:

1. Open Google Chrome and click on the three lines in the top right corner.

2. Select "Settings" from the menu.

3. Click the "Privacy and Security" option in the left-hand menu.

4. Select "Site Settings" and scroll down until you see the "Pop-ups and Redirects" option.

5. Click on "Don't allow sites to send pop-ups or use redirects."

Use encryption tools

Universities are already accessible enough targets for hackers; don’t make it easier for threat actors to steal your data. Encryption consists of scrambling your data so only authorized users can access it. When you encrypt your data, it's much more difficult for hackers to steal it.

College students can use encryption tools to protect their data. Here are some of the most common ones available:

  • Encryption software — These encryption tools are installed on your computer and encrypt all stored data. Examples include BitLocker (Windows) and FileVault (Mac).

  • Encrypted hard drive — This type of external hard drive is encrypted to protect the data stored inside.

  • Virtual private network (VPN) — These encryption tools create a secure, private connection between your computer and the Internet. Examples include CyberGhost, PrivateInternetAccess, and ExpressVPN.

Update your software

You probably use your laptop and smartphone for learning purposes. The more you use a device, the more reason to keep it secure. One of the best ways to keep a device safe is to ensure its software is up-to-date. Hackers can exploit these security vulnerabilities to gain access to your data or take control of your computer.

Enable automatic updates to ensure that your software is always up-to-date. Software updates usually correct all security vulnerabilities. This way, you'll never have to worry about manually installing updates.

In addition to updating your software, it's also important to update your operating system. Operating system updates usually include security patches and new features that can help improve your computer's security.

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Always keep your software and operating system up-to-date.

Wipe clean any personal devices you sell or give away

When you get a new computer or mobile device, it's essential to dispose of your old one properly as it may include your personally identifiable information (PII) or that of other students. This includes wiping clean any stored personal data.

To wipe clean your computer or mobile device, use built-in factory reset features:

  • System > Recovery > Reset this PC (Windows)

  • Erase All Contents and Settings (Mac, iPhone, or iPad)

  • System & Updates > Reset (Android)

Alternatively, you can use third-party tools to securely delete all the data on your hard drives, such as CCleaner and those included with antivirus software. Once you've wiped clean your old device, you can recycle, sell, or donate it to another student without worry.

Get antivirus software to protect your devices

Most college students don’t consider using antivirus solutions until their computer gets a virus. However, it's important to use an antivirus to protect yourself from malware, such as spyware, trojan viruses, adware, ransomware, and other online safety threats. An antivirus will also protect your personal information.

There are many antivirus solutions available, both free and paid. Consider ease of use, price, features, and reviews when choosing an antivirus solution. Bitdefender, Norton, and McAfee are some of the leading names in antivirus software. 

Use a VPN to protect your privacy

There's been a lot of news surrounding data breaches and privacy concerns lately. It's no wonder that so many people these days are using VPNs to protect their online activity. College students are especially vulnerable to these threats as they often use public Wi-Fi networks.

College students can encrypt their traffic and make it much harder for hackers to snoop on their activities by using a VPN. In addition, VPNs can also help bypass campus and geo-restrictions that may be in place.

There are many VPNs to choose from, both free and paid. Be sure to choose one that meets your needs. Some things you may want to consider when choosing a VPN provider are speed, security, price, and reviews. You can use a free VPN, like TunnelBear, or a paid VPN like ExpressVPN or CyberGhost.

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College students can encrypt their traffic and protect their online activities by using a VPN.

Online safety tips for college students — key takeaways

To summarize, here are the most crucial Internet safety tips for college students:

  • Report incidents of cyberbullying and block the attacker.

  • Only use trusted websites when shopping online.

  • Secure your accounts with strong passwords and two-factor authentication.

  • Enable smartphone security features, such as biometrics and automatic updates.

  • Back up your data regularly using a cloud service or external drive.

  • Review your bank and credit card statements monthly to track your spending.

  • Secure your laptop and other devices, and don't leave them unattended.

  • Beware of unsecured Wi-Fi networks; use a VPN if you have to use public Wi-Fi.

  • Enable pop-up blockers to prevent malicious pop-ups from infecting your browser.

  • Use encryption tools like local data encryptors and VPNs for Internet data encryption.

  • Update your software regularly to minimize the number of vulnerabilities.

  • Watch out for phishing scams like job scams. Don't click on suspicious links and double-check a company before responding.

  • Learn how to combat the dangers of social media. Never give out your location, address, or other sensitive information.

  • Get antivirus software to protect your devices from malware, spyware, trojan viruses, adware, ransomware, and other online security threats.

  • Use a VPN to protect your privacy when using public Wi-Fi or campus networks.

Octav Fedor (Cybersecurity Editor)

Octav is a cybersecurity researcher and writer at AntivirusGuide. When he’s not publishing his honest opinions about security software online, he likes to learn about programming, watch astronomy documentaries, and participate in general knowledge competitions.