Kids will be kids: Blabbing on social media. Eagerly completing prize-promising online surveys that ask for birth dates and other personal information. Downloading “free” online games and videos that may harbor malware. And through it all, using weak passwords such as pet names, school mascots and names of best friends that could double as security questions.
Meanwhile, the system remains the system: Requesting, but not legally required, to have a child’s Social Security number on forms for doctor appointments, weekend soccer leagues and extracurricular activities. Publishing school directories with addresses, phone numbers and birth dates. Careless oversharing and weak protection of sensitive data by institutions while proud parents and grandparents think nothing of posting photos and ID theft-worthy details on social media about their half-pint offspring.
So it may come as no surprise that the children in your life could be among the 143 million American consumers whose sensitive personal information was exposed in the recently announced Equifax data breach. (To check, visit www.equifaxsecurity2017.com, click the “Am I Impacted?” button and enter the child’s last name and the last six digits of SSN.) And if not this time, perhaps in a past or future breach.
That’s because children are especially prized by identity thieves. From birth to age 18, they are targeted and victimized at much higher rates than adults (anywhere from 35 to 51 percent higher, depending on the study). College students are also at greater risk. For crooks, their value comes with virgin credit histories, making it easier to use a child’s SSN to open credit card accounts and apply for loans, utility service or government benefits. “As long as an identity thief has a SSN with a clean history, the thief can attach any name and date of birth to it,” Carnegie Mellon University’s CyLab researchers noted in their highly cited 2011 report on Child Identity Theft.
What’s worse, child identity theft could continue undetected for years or decades — to be discovered only when victims eventually apply for a credit card, a student loan or a job, and learn that their credit is already ruined. Here’s how to protect the young’uns:
Know the warning signs. Assume that identity theft has already occurred, or is in progress, if your child has no existing credit but:
- is being mailed credit card and loan offers
- has been denied a bank account, driver’s license or government health insurance benefits because the SSN is already being used
- is unable to apply for student aid, including the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)
- the IRS or state tax agencies send notices that the child didn’t pay income taxes or was claimed as a dependent on a tax return other than yours
- is getting phone calls or bills from debt collection agencies.
Check the child’s credit report. Unless there are existing credit accounts in the child’s name, you want to hear that there’s no credit report on file under his/her SSN. If a file exists but the child never applied for or was granted credit, assume the worst — and file a police report and complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.
Consider a credit freeze. A smart proactive move — and definite measure to take if child identity theft has already occurred — imposing a freeze restricts access to a credit file. Creditors, unable to review the file, are unlikely to issue new accounts. (A freeze, however, does nothing to prevent fraud in existing accounts.) Currently, 29 states allow parents, legal guardians or other representatives of minors to place a security freeze on the minor’s credit report: Alaska, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.
But it can be done, no matter where you live — at least with Equifax, Experian and Innovis, a lesser-known credit reporting bureau. TransUnion allows credit freezes for minors only in states that explicitly permit it by law. These freezes may cost (usually under $20) and can be thawed for credit checks if the child needs to apply for credit, insurance or a job.
Tell them well – and practice what you preach. Guide children and college-age adults to keep personal information private, especially online, and adjust privacy settings to make it difficult for strangers to view accounts or post material on their pages. Warn them about the dangers of malware from clicking on links. (Celebrity gossip, free games, music and apps are especially enticing and proven lures by scammers.) And you, also, shouldn’t overshare personal information such as their SSN, and you should shred unneeded documents that display it.
For information about other scams, sign up for the Fraud Watch Network. You’ll receive free email alerts with tips and resources to help you spot and avoid identity theft and fraud. Keep tabs on scams and law enforcement alerts in your area at our Scam-Tracking Map.
Also of Interest
- New rules for password protection
- Get wise to these common and costly student aid scams
- Get help: Find out if you’re eligible for public benefits with Benefits QuickLINK
- Join AARP: Savings, resources and news for your well-being
See the AARP home page for deals, savings tips, trivia and more.