In this post, we’ll show you how to protect your children from having their identity stolen. Along the way, you’ll learn the how and why of criminals stealing children’s identities, who does it, and warning signs to watch for that suggest your child’s identity has been stolen.
It’s not just adults that have to be worried about having their identity stolen — children are at risk, too. In fact, it’s a big problem throughout the United States, not to mention other parts of the world. According to a 2018 study more than 1 million child identities were stolen in the U.S. alone — and half of them were victimized by someone who knew them personally.
If you already worry about having your own identity stolen, worrying about your child’s being illegally taken and misused only adds to it exponentially. But to learn how to protect your children from identity theft, you first need to understand how it differs from theft of an adult’s identity.
Understanding child identity theft
The biggest problem (and attractor for criminals) with child identity theft is that children don’t normally use credit. So often, it can be many years before anyone realizes that their identity was stolen and has been misused. But that aside, there are some key differences between child identity fraud and adult fraud cases. The biggest is that most adult cases involve existing credit accounts being illegally accessed and abused — just 4% of adult cases involve new accounts being opened. But for children, new account fraud is the most common type — by as much as 51x the rate it occurs for adults.
Once identity thieves steal a child’s Social Security Number or other personal info, there’s a lot they can do with it, including:
- Open new accounts, like bank, credit, loans, etc
- Get a driver’s licenese
- Apply for a job
- Set up utilities
- Rent an apartment
- Apply for government or health benefits
- Buy a home or car
- And more
One thing thieves can do that’s particularly hard to detect and put a stop to is create an entirely new identity using a child’s SSN. This is called “synthetic identity theft” and involves combining your child’s SSN with a fake name and birthdate. Many victims to this type of child identity theft don’t even know until they turn 18 and apply for their first credit card — only to find their SSN attached to someone else’s name on a credit report.
Because child identity theft is so difficult to detect, it can take a long time to recover once it is. This is one of the primary ways child identity theft is similar to adult theft. Dragging out for years, 25% of child fraud victims surveyed by Experian reported that they were still dealing with issues as a result of the theft more than 10 years since that first fraud happened.
But of all the terrible things involved with child identity theft, perhaps worst of all is that it can happen to a child at any age. The average is 12 years old at time of theft, but two-thirds of the victims are under 8, and children as young as 5 months have been reported elsewhere. Plus, with changes made to the way the Social Security Administration assigns SSNs — using random digits, rather than numbers based on their birth-region — clever thieves can obtain use SSNs that haven’t even been assigned yet, which means newborns can receive SSNs that have already been stolen.
Who commits identity theft?
So who commits child identity theft? There are 3 primary groups:
- Friends and family of the child
Parents with poor credit ratings have been known to steal their own children’s identities — and thus, their clean credit. Friends and acquaintances do so, too, often for similar reasons. They don’t necessarily mean harm to the child, but their actions give the child a false credit history that will follow them around for years.
- Organized criminals
Criminals will steal identities to get money. Using a child’s SSN, they create a fake identity and build a credit history; once they have good credit, they take advantage of it and rack up large amounts of debt. When the identity has been “sucked dry” of all use, they discard it and find a new one, leaving their victims with severely damaged credit.
- Illegal immigrants
To make themselves look like U.S. citizens, illegal immigrants commit synthetic identity theft by pairing a child’s SSN with their own name and date of birth. Then, they can apply for jobs, file tax returns, vote, and take advantage of any rights guaranteed to citizens.
Warning signs of child identity theft
Now that you understand how and why child identity theft happens, you’re ready to learn what to watch for. Certain indicators should throw up red flags to you and suggest that your child may have had their identity stolen. Many will come in the mailbox. To name the most common:
- A sudden influx of credit card and loan offers addressed to your child;
- They’re turned away for Medicaid or other government benefits because their SSN is attached to an existing account already receiving benefits;
- Credit card bills addressed to your child;
- Collection calls for your child;
- IRS notices for unpaid taxes or that they’ve been claimed as a dependent on another tax return;
- They’re denied a bank account or driver’s license;
- Notifications for unpaid parking or traffic tickets;
- Jury summons.
One notable exception is pre-approved credit cards addressed to your child: it’s not always a sign of identity theft, as credit card companies often send these out to people at random. They may have gotten your child’s name off a bank account, college fund, or otherwise legitimate account. The point at which you should start worrying is when you get many of these offers at once, or alongside any of the other warning signs. As you go through your mail, keep an eye out for any of these suspicious items.
Protecting your child’s identity
Protecting your child’s identity from being stolen requires some simple measures. The first thing to note is that prevention > restoration — meaning preventing identity theft in the first place is always easier and better than trying to repair and restore it later. That said, here’s what to do:
Protect their personal information
Start out by keeping documents locked up. Find a safe place to store any documents that contain SSNs, birth certificates, tax returns, etc. Anything paper put in a safe or locked file cabinet — anywhere a visitor won’t be able to get at them easily. Protect digital documents with strong passwords on all electronic devices — no “remember password” here. In that same vein, update all your devices’ antivirus protection. Adding anti-virus, anti-adware, and antispyware greatly reduces your chances of identity theft.
Next, use a shredder. If you don’t need a document, shred it. If something comes in the mail that has any of your child’s personal information on it — like those random pre-approved credit card offers — shred it. Doing so ensures that any thieves going through your recycling won’t be able to steal anything.
Don’t carry sensitive documents around, either. Any document that contains their SSN — like passports and SSN cards — should be kept in that locked safe place, not your wallet, purse, or car. Anyone who breaks in or mugs you then gains access to your information. As a side note, the same goes for your own documents: don’t carry them.
Limit who has access
Outside of the home, limit who has access to your child’s information. Schools and camps are often the biggest offenders, with directories that include names, photos, and contact information — sometimes even making it available to the public, not just families of other enrolled children. The federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, protects the privacy of students in the U.S. Under it, you as a parent have the right to inspect your child’s records, request changes to wrong information, and most importantly, opt out of having any of your child’s information disclosed to third parties. Beyond knowing your rights, you can protect your child further at school or in any camp or non-school related programs by doing the following:
- Verify that their records are kept in a secure location
- Pay attention to forms from school
Particularly terms like “personally identifiable information”, “directory information”, and “opt out.”
- Read notices from their school
An annual notice will be sent to your home explaining your FERPA rights.
- Know the school/program’s policies
What information is kept on your child in their directory? Who has access to that directory? How can you opt out of directory information release, surveys, and anything else that might result in your child’s information being released?
- Respond to any breaches
If you get a notice from the school or believe your child’s information may be at risk, contact the school and find out more. What happened? What are they doing about it? Keep written records and follow up.
Educate your children
Finally, educate your children on keeping their personal information private — particularly online safety. Kids spend a lot of time on connected devices nowadays, so you need to make sure they know not to share any personal information. Have a discussion with them about not sharing information with strangers or online; if they know their SSN, keeping it secret; and show them how to spot internet and email scams so they don’t fall for them. It doesn’t matter how perfect you are at the other protective measures if your child doesn’t understand and gives away their information themself.
What to do when identity theft happens
If you’re concerned your child’s identity has been stolen, there are some specific steps you should take. First, find out if your child has a credit report. And in case you haven’t picked up on it yet, here’s a big hint: they shouldn’t have one yet. Credit reports only exist if they’ve applied for credit, and children are too young to do that. So if they do, that’s a sign that an identity thief may have stolen their SSN.
It’s important to note that you should only request a child’s report from the 3 major credit reporting agencies if you have a reason to do so (i.e. red flags). If you don’t have any reason, problems can happen because of the multiple requests — that’s straight from the Identity Theft Report Center. They also advise that a lack of information on a credit report (i.e. no report for your child) at one moment in time doesn’t mean that no activity is going on — so finding out if your child has a credit report is not a guarantee their identity hasn’t been stolen.
In any case, here are the numbers and web addresses for each of the 3 major credit reporting bureaus:
- TransUnion: 800-916-8800; www.transunion.com
- Equifax: 888-298-0045; www.equifax.com
- Experian: 888-397-3742; www.experian.com
When you call each credit bureau, they may ask for copies of your child’s birth or adoption record, their Social Security card, your government-issued ID or other documentation proving you’re the child’s parent, and proof of address.
If you find that your child has a credit report in their name or social security number, it’s time to get started on restoration. Here’s how:
- Report the crime by visiting IdentityTheft.gov or by calling 877-ID-THEFT and file an Identity Theft Report. If you’ve determined that someone has filed for taxes using your child’s SSN, report that crime separately using the IRS Identity Theft Affidavit form.
- Contact the companies where the fraud occurred. Speak to their fraud department, ask them to close the account, and explain that someone opened the fraudulent account using your child’s identity. The Identity Theft Report your filed will help you here. Also ask each creditor to send you a letter confirming that your child isn’t liable for the debts.
- Clean up your child’s credit report. Contact each bureau and ask them to remove the fraudulent accounts from your child’s credit report. Each agency will have a different process, so follow their instructions. Tell them that your child is a minor who can’t enter into any contracts; as the previous time, you may need to send them a birth certificate for your child.
- That done, consider a credit freeze. With everything cleaned up, consider applying a credit freeze to your child’s credit. Doing so severely restricts access to your child’s credit file, making it nearly impossible for identity thieves to open new accounts in their name. As a parent or guardian, you can apply a credit freeze for free if your child is under 16; if they’re 16 or 17 years old, your child can freeze it themself.
Being worried about your own identity being stolen is plenty of stress — you don’t want to be concerned about the more terrifying option: your children’s identity being taken. Luckily, the steps for protecting your children from identity theft are simple — they require a little effort at the outset, but the rewards are as much peace of mind as can be gained, and safety for your children’s future.
Are you taking any of these steps already? Which ones? Was any information new to you? Have you or someone you know experienced child identity theft? Tell us your story in the comments section below.