My generation went off to college with a duffel bag full of clothes, a pillow, a toothbrush, and a backpack covered with rock-and-roll buttons. If someone was lucky enough to have a personal stereo, it usually came with speakers the size of a footlocker — not a very discreet object for a thief to sneak out of a dorm room.

Now it’s different. This fall, students will head off to college with thousands of dollars in computers, cameras, pocket-size electronics, musical instruments, and tricked-out bicycles — a veritable buffet of easy-to-swipe gadgets and gizmos.

This matters because theft is the most common crime on college campuses. In 2014, there were 13,500 thefts reported on college campuses, according to a National Center for Education Statistics report. The number one item stolen? Electronic devices, especially smartphones. A close second, however, are bikes. The National Bike Registry reports that there’s a one in two chance your teen’s bike will be stolen at college. Adding to the bike theft problem are endlessly creative bike thieves who are happy to steal parts if they can’t get away with the whole bike. In addition to tech and bikes, college kids need to be wary of losing other easily carried-off items like instruments, credit cards, and jewelry.

With this in mind, here are some relatively easy ways, courtesy of the Virginia Commonwealth University’s police department, to help your teen avoid theft at college.

12 tips for protecting your teen’s property at college

  1. Create an inventory before your teen leaves for college.

    Write down the serial numbers and take photos of valuable property for insurance purposes. Store the photos and serial numbers in a safe location, such as in the cloud or on a memory stick in a locked drawer (not on your teen’s smartphone, which, again, is one of your child’s most-likely-to-be-stolen items).

  2. Cover your teen with renter’s insurance.

    Renter’s insurance is inexpensive (a standard policy costs between $15 and $30 per month). Your homeowners insurance may cover your teen’s property while they’re living in the dorms, but it’s unlikely to work if your teen lives off campus.

  3. Register electronics and other valuables with the campus police safety program.

    This is a great option if your teen’s school has one. Sure, it’s a hassle, but if an item is stolen and later recovered, it’ll be easier to reclaim. Many colleges and universities also have bicycle registration programs. Also, take a moment to register your teen’s ride on the Bike Index, a national registry that helps recover stolen bikes. It’s free.

  4. Remind your teen to lock their dorm room.

    It’s hard to remember in a fun, free-wheeling dorm, but locking their room every time they leave is effective — and yes, even if they’re just down the hall using the shower.

  5. Hide small valuables in an inexpensive book safe.

    The idea is to buy a safe that looks like an old book and sits on a bookshelf. Thieves want to work quickly and will avoid rifling through books on a shelf in favor of quickly rummaging through drawers. Your teen could also just use a small regular safe and lock it to their bed with a cable. Finally, suggest that your teen store their musical instruments and other valuables in their closet (not scattered around the dorm room).

  6. Get a U-shaped bar lock for their bike.

    The best bet is to thread a cable through their bike’s wheels and use a U-lock to secure the bike frame to a bolted-down bicycle rack. Cable and chain locks are no match for thieves with bolt cutters, though, who work days as well as nights. If your teen’s bike has a quick-release front wheel, your child should release the wheel and lock it to the rear wheel and the bike frame. They should also consider removing the bike’s seat and carrying it in their backpack while their bike is locked up. A thief will find it uncomfortable to ride away on a stolen bike with a missing seat, which would also draw unwanted attention.

  7. Put that smartphone away.

    Whether they’re at the library, the food court, or some off-campus bar, it’s better for your teen to put their smartphone away than to place it idly on the table., It’s also safer not to hang their backpack on the back of their chair, as an experienced thief can reach in when they’re distracted. Finally, store irreplaceable photos in the cloud..

  8. Make a laptop plan for potty breaks.

    When your teen runs to the bathroom, they can either take their laptop with them or use a computer lock (available at electronics and office supply stores). They shouldn’t just leave their laptop out, no matter how quick their pit stop will be. (If this sounds like a nifty device, there are similar locks available to secure gaming consoles in an apartment or dorm.)

  9. Set up a kill switch app on your teen’s smartphone (and know how to use it).

    This will allow your teen to disable the phone remotely in the event it’s stolen. Stealing iPhones, also known as “Apple picking,” has been on the decline since Apple introduced a kill switch that lets the owner remotely disable the device, turning a smartphone into a dumb brick. Samsung offers similar technology. If your teen has a different device, third-party apps are available for download through the Google Play store that will render a phone inoperable if stolen.

  10. Create a passcode for the smartphone.

    This code, which has to be entered before the screen will unlock, can be a deterrent to thieves and can keep sensitive data safe if the phone is stolen.

  11. Leave valuable heirlooms at home.

    It’s a loving gesture to wear grandma’s ring, but it will be much safer back home with mom and dad than it will be at college.

  12. Don’t carry money, ID, or credit cards in their backpack.

    Thieves are experts at reaching inside a compartment, even (or especially) on crowded buses. Carrying those valuables in a wallet or small purse around their neck, (just like travelers in another country) is a safer bet.

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Updated: July 16, 2018