A report on why and how to protect your children’s information.
There’s a new worry for parents—child identity theft. As Richard Power of the Carnegie Mellon CyLab cautions in the introduction to his report, Child Identity Theft, “It is possible that you could be quite effective at warding off online predators and cyber-bullies…only to find that your child’s identity has been violated, and your family’s financial and emotional well-being threatened in an almost unconceivable way.”
Shockingly, the Carnegie Mellon study found that children are targeted for identity theft 35 times more frequently than adults. Based on 42,000 identity protection scans of children ages 18 and under, which were completed during 2009 and 2010, Carnegie Mellon researchers found Social Security numbers for more than 4,300 children—10.2 percent of those scanned—were being used by someone else.
The primary motives for child identity theft involve illegal immigration (to obtain false identification for employment) and organized crime (to commit financial fraud). However, the report also found a number of instances where the child’s friends and family, even the parents, stole a Social Security number to circumvent bad credit ratings.
The thieves used these stolen Social Security numbers to purchase homes and automobiles, open credit card accounts, secure employment, and obtain driver’s licenses. The largest fraud of $725,000 was committed against a 17-year-old girl. The suspected thief opened 42 credit accounts, including mortgages, auto loans, and credit cards. The thief also had outstanding medical and utility bills.
Power’s researchers also discovered a 14-year-old with a credit history that went back more than a decade and included a foreclosed mortgage. The youngest victim was five months old, and 303 victims were under the age of five.
In Child Identity Theft, Power explains that because young children don’t use their Social Security numbers, they are easy marks for identity thieves. The thieves can pair the child’s number with any name and birth date and get away with their scam for years, especially if they pay their credit card bills on time. In fact, often the theft isn’t discovered until the child applies for a student loan or a job, or tries to buy a mobile phone or a car. By that time, as you can imagine, the damage can be overwhelming.
Clearly, creditors and businesses need to do a better job of authorizing accounts to thwart would-be thieves. But, Child Identity Theft outlines some important steps that you, as a parent or guardian, can take to reduce the chance of your child falling victim to identity theft:
- Watch for mail in your child’s name. If pre-approved credit cards or other unsolicited financial offers begin flooding your mailbox, your child may have an open credit file.
- Teach your children about identity theft and online safety, specifically addressing the dangers of sharing personal data, such their Social Security or driver’s license numbers, on social networking sites such as Facebook.
- Warn your children about opening online offers for “free” games, ring tones, or other products, because malware may lurk in what they download. In fact, tell your kids not to download anything unless they trust the source and have scanned it with security software.
- Encourage your children to use strong email passwords and to protect them. The longer the password, the more difficult it is for thieves to crack. An email address, common words, 123, or other adjacent keyboard keys are unsafe passwords. And, tell your children not to share their passwords with anyone, including their friends.
- Keep your child’s personal documents in a safe place. Yes, your children will need their Social Security card to apply for a job, but they should not make a habit of carrying their card in their wallet.
Finally, it’s a good idea to do a free credit check on your children well before they apply for a job or for a college or car loan. Here’s the contact information for the three major national credit bureaus:
- Equifax: 1-800-685-1111
Fraud Hotline: 1-888-766-0008
- Experian: 1-888-397-3742
Fraud Hotline: 1-888-397-3742
- TransUnion: 1-800-916-8800
Fraud Hotline: 1-800-680-7289
If your child’s credit check shows personal information has been misused, call each of the three major credit bureaus to make a report. You should also file a report with the Federal Trade Commission’s Identity Theft Hotline (877-438-4338) and with your local police department.
Of course, we’ll be here to help, too.