With each new data breach to hit the headlines, Americans become more concerned about protecting their personally identifiable information (PII) against potential thieves.
But there is an important set of data they may be overlooking: their children’s information.
While children don’t have bank accounts or credit card numbers that thieves can exploit, they do offer blank records that are appealing to anyone looking to assume a new identity. Plus, since credit reports are rarely run for children until they reach 18, identity theft can go undetected for years.
Ten percent of minors were victims of identity theft before they reached adulthood.
Identity thieves have unfortunately caught on to this unassuming trove of data. In a 2011 study conducted by the Carnegie Mellon CyLab, 10 percent of minors were victims of identity theft before they reached adulthood.
It isn’t just the number of victims that is alarming, but also the severity of these crimes.
If a child is a victim of identity theft, they can inherit years of fraudulent charges and a decimated credit score by the time they reach adulthood. When Dr. Axton Betz-Hamilton, a child identity theft researcher, discovered in college that her identity was stolen at the age of 11, she had ten pages worth of fraudulent charges to resolve. Her credit was so damaged that she was forced to claw her way up from an abysmal 380 credit score.
Unlike an adult who may be able to rest on their previously healthy credit to dispute fraudulent charges, a minor doesn’t have any credit to fall back on. For someone like Dr. Betz-Hamilton, it can take years to resolve a stolen identity.
The best way to fight childhood identity theft is to ensure it doesn’t happen in the first place. Here are ten ways that parents can secure their children’s identities.
1. Check to see if your child has a credit report.
If they don’t have a report, that’s a good thing—it means there aren’t any lines of credit attached to their name. If they do have a report, you’ll have a detailed account of the fraudulent activity with which to work.
Experts recommend checking for a credit report on a yearly basis, but especially around your child’s 16th birthday. If their identity has been compromised, you will have enough time to resolve it before they apply for student loans or jobs.
2. Don’t overshare on social media.
Yes, it’s thrilling when your family welcomes the arrival of a new baby or your teenager receives their driver’s license, but not every one of your 500-plus Facebook “friends” need to know every detail. Never share your child’s full name or birthdate, and don’t post images that may contain personal information (like your child holding their license or a college acceptance letter).
It should go without saying that if you are sharing any information about your family, your accounts should be private.
3. Ask questions.
Who has access to your children’s personal identifiable information? Why do they need it? How do they store it? How do they dispose of it?
You should especially familiarize yourself with the data privacy policies of your child’s school, pediatrician, child care facility, and extracurricular programs. In addition to checking that your child’s Social Security number isn’t exposed, keep an eye out for the more innocent (and common) ways that your child’s PII may be shared, like birthday calendars or classroom contact lists.
4. Limit who has your child’s Social Security number.
You should never share your child’s SSN unless the other party has a legitimate reason for needing it. In some cases, you may be able to provide the last four digits of their social instead.
If you have a new baby, family members may ask for their SSN in order to purchase a savings bond in their name. While this is necessary to purchase a savings bond online, it isn’t necessary to obtain a paper version through a financial institution. Your friend or family member can provide their SSN instead.
5. Properly store your child’s personally identifiable information.
If you have physical documents with your child’s Social Security number, lock them up in a file cabinet or safe. If you ever need to dispose of documents with your child’s PII (even if it’s junk mail with their name and address), make sure you shred it.
Any sensitive documents on your computer should be encrypted. You can even encrypt the file they are stored in and hide it within a larger file so it is difficult for a thief to find.
6. Freeze your child’s credit.
This is helpful if your child’s information was exposed in a data breach. A freeze will prevent someone from opening new lines of credit or accounts under your child’s name.
You must contact each credit reporting agency and pay your state’s fee, which is typically no more than $10. You can lift the freeze when your child turns 18, or temporarily for a specific length of time or party.
7. Request an initial fraud alert.
With a fraud alert, companies must verify your identity before issuing new credit. An initial fraud alert is intended as a precautionary measure, like after a data breach that compromises your child’s information. It can stop fraudulent credit before it happens.
Unlike the extended seven-year fraud alert, you do not need an identity theft report to obtain the initial alert. You can get this free alert by contacting one of the three major credit reporting agencies (each is required to alert the other two). The alert lasts for 90 days but can be extended if necessary.
8. Enroll in an identity theft alert system.
Services like LifeLock can help you detect when your PII has been compromised before it results in a stolen identity.
LifeLock has a service specifically for minors called LifeLock Jr. For $5.99 a month, it will alert you if your child’s PII is listed on the black market, credit is opened in their name, or if their identity has been compromised.
9. Be careful with smart toys.
In July, the F.B.I. issued a warning for smart toys. These interactive toys gradually tailor the play experience to each child using data from previous interactions. In some cases, they store conversations with children or require personal information like a child’s birthdate or name to create their user profile.
When these toys are connected to the Internet, they may be vulnerable to getting hacked. Make sure your child only plays with these toys on secure and trusted Wi-Fi providers.
10. Talk to your children.
Long before your child joins social media they will use apps, online games, and other digital toys. Just like you would warn them about trusting strangers, you should teach them to be cautious when sharing any personal information online.
Were You Hacked?
If your identity was stolen after a data breach, you may be eligible for compensation. Our attorneys have filed lawsuits in response to some of the largest data breaches in history, including Yahoo and Equifax. Contact us today for a free, no-obligation legal consultation.