As thousands of students across the UK head off to university - many for the first time - a group of industry experts, law enforcement and Government organisations are urging them to be aware of the threat of identity theft and offering advice on how to take the necessary precautions to avoid it.
Students have been identified as a high-risk group due to their lifestyle and unique circumstances. Being away from home for the first time, independently managing their own finances, regular changes of address and the need to carry personal details or documents are all contributing factors that leave students especially vulnerable to the criminals.
The warning comes from the Home Office Identity Fraud Consumer Awareness Group, a group comprising law enforcement agencies, Government organisations and the finance industry.
Chris Lamsdell, Detective Inspector for the Metropolitan Police, said; "University is about having fun as well as learning, but we would urge anyone who is leaving home for the first time to think about how they can protect themselves from identity theft.
"The repercussions of identity theft can affect a victim's credit rating long after the length of their course.
"And, while there are many free services to help victims, additional stress during term time is certainly best avoided.
"If not corrected, any inaccuracies on a person's credit report will influence financial decisions for years to come and could affect your ability to rent a flat, apply for a mortgage, get a loan for a car and even get the job you want."
His words of caution are fully supported by the National Union of Students.
Veronica King, NUS vice-president of welfare, said: "For most students, debt is unavoidable, but when it's someone else spending your money, it's quite a different story.
Therefore it's vital for students to take these precautionary measures and reduce their chances of becoming another victim of identity theft."
A recent survey by Money-Facts revealed that more than 70 per cent of students insufficiently destroy used card receipts and old bank statements, almost half allow other people to use their bank card and almost a third know a fellow student who has experienced financial fraud.
Top tips for students include:
* Regularly get a copy of your personal credit report (this costs from £2) from a credit reference agency to see if it includes any entries you do not recognise.
* Royal Mail offers a redirection service when you move home. Consider redirecting any post for at least a year. Be careful if other people have access to your post, particularly in shared accommodation.
* Collect post daily and contact Royal Mail if you think your post is being stolen.
* If you move house, tell your bank, credit card company and other organisations that you deal with. To check that your personal details are secure, get a copy of your credit report two to three months after moving.
* Choose reputable internet cafes that completely erase the disk you were using and rein-stall the operating system from scratch for each user. Don't leave the computer unattended.
* Cancel any lost or stolen credit or debit cards immediately. Keep a note of the emergency numbers you should call.
* Be careful to keep your personal information secure when using your card over the phone, on the internet or in shops by making sure that other people cannot overhear you or see your personal information.
* Keep your personal documents in a safe place, preferably in a lockable drawer or cabinet. Consider storing valuable financial documents with your bank.
* If your passport or driving licence has been lost or stolen, contact immediately the organisation that issued it.
* Don't throw away documents such as bills, receipts, credit or debit card slips, bank statements or unwanted post in your name. Destroy unwanted documents, preferably by using a shredder.
* Check statements as soon as they arrive. If any unfamiliar transactions are listed, contact the bank or company concerned immediately.
* Never give personal or account details to anyone who contacts you unexpectedly. Be aware that a bank will never contact you to ask you for your personal identification number (PIN) or for a whole security number or password. Keep them secure.
* Don't use the same password for more than one account and never use banking passwords on other websites.
* Using different passwords makes it harder for criminals to access your accounts. Avoid using just family names or dates of birth as passwords.
* Keep passwords safe and never record or store them in a way which leaves them open to theft, such as in your purse, wallet or mobile phone.
* For more information see www.identitytheft.org.uk.
Meanwhile, consumers are also leaving themselves open to online fraud, with half a million people admitting they would fall victim to scams such as "phishing", a report has revealed.
People are still unaware of basic security measures when banking online, the research from APACS, the UK payments association, showed.
Some 3.8 per cent of the 15.7 million people who regularly use the internet to access their current, savings and credit card accounts said they would respond to an unsolicited e-mail, supposedly from their bank, asking them to follow a link and re-enter personal security details - unwittingly giving fraudsters access to their money.
Although the figure was slightly down from four per cent in 2004, only half of those surveyed this year said they ignore these phishing e-mails, compared to 65 per cent in 2004.
The number of phishing attacks has soared more than 800 per cent in the past year, and hit a record figure of 1,484 a few months ago.
The study also showed that internet users were complacent when it came to passwords and anti-virus software.
Almost two thirds of people never change their password, one in five uses the same password for non-financial web sites as their online bank and just over a third record their password or security information by writing it down or storing it on their computer.
Less than half (46.3 per cent) regularly update their anti-virus software, and only one in ten people has installed anti-spam software.
Sandra Quinn, director of corporate communications at APACS, expected consumers' failure to play safe online to lead to an increase in online banking fraud losses.
"Some people still aren't doing all they should to protect themselves which, hand-in-hand with a large increase in phishing e-mail attacks at the start of the year, leads us to expect an increase in online banking fraud losses in the first half of 2006," she said.
Online banking losses hit £23.2 million last year, with card fraud losses amounting to £219.4 million in the first six months of the year. Internet fraud accounted for a quarter of this.
Sandra Quinn added: "Clearly, it's a concern that so many internet users are still not aware of simple security advice.
"Everyone needs to do all they can to make life as hard as possible for fraudsters.
"The internet has totally changed the way we shop and bank, and it's very safe provided you remember two simple rules: use a secure PC and be wary of unsolicited e-mails." n For further information on protecting yourself from online fraud go to banksafeonline.org.uk or www.cardwatch.org.uk