Steve Weisman is a lawyer, college professor, author, and one of the country’s leading experts in cybersecurity, identity theft, and scams. See Steve’s other Con Watch articles.
According to a recent Harris Poll, 48% of American adults believe that they will become identity theft victims in the next year. As startling as this figure is, a study by the Carnegie Mellon CyLab concluded that children are 51 times more likely to become victims of identity theft than adults, and yet many people are unaware of what a serious problem child identity theft poses.
In the last few years, children have become prime targets of identity thieves. A recently released study by Javelin Strategy & Research indicates that a million American children became victims of identity theft last year at a cost of $2.6 billion in total losses to the families. If a thief is able to get identifying information on a child, such as the child’s Social Security number, he can obtain credit in the child’s name. The identity thief never pays back the money accessed through the child’s credit, and the child is burdened with a bad credit report that can have numerous harmful effects: the victim may be turned down when he or she applies for credit, applies for a job, applies for a scholarship, or seeks to rent an apartment. Often the identity theft is not discovered until years after it first happens, which makes it more difficult to remedy.
How to Prevent Child Identity Theft
- Freeze your child’s credit. A credit freeze is a tremendous tool for fighting identity theft because it prevents an identity thief from establishing credit in your name. Unfortunately, the credit reporting agencies only allow credit freezes for minors in the 29 states that have laws permitting parents to put credit freezes on the accounts of their children.
If you live in one of the states that have a child identity theft law and have minor children, you should contact each of the three major credit reporting agencies — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion — in order to freeze your child’s credit. In order to take advantage of these laws you need to set up a credit report for your child and immediately freeze the account. And while you are at it, you should also freeze your own credit as your best precaution against identity theft.
- Guard your child’s Social Security number. Parents should, as much as possible, try to limit the places that have their child’s Social Security number. Your child’s information is only as secure as the places with the weakest security. Your child’s pediatrician or dentist may request your child’s Social Security number, but they have no legal need for it. Refrain from providing it.
It is an unfortunate fact that must child identity theft is traced back to family members or others who have access to the home. Keep your child’s personal information including his or her Social Security card safe from prying eyes.
- Become familiar with FERPA. The Family Educational Rights Privacy Act (FERPA) helps you protect the privacy of your child’s school records and enables you to opt out of information sharing by the school with third parties. Many school forms ask for personal information about your child. This information, if not properly secured and managed, can result in child identity theft. Parents should ask their child’s school about who has access to the personal information of its students and what security precautions are being taken by the school to protect that information.
Schools are required to provide parents annually with a FERPA notice informing them of their privacy rights in regard to their child’s educational records. Parents should carefully read this notice and be aware of their rights to consent to the disclosure of records and their ability to correct errors in the school records.
Many schools have student directories that may contain your child’s name, address, date of birth, telephone number, email address, and photograph. FERPA requires that parents must be informed of the school’s policy regarding its student directory and inform the parents of their right to opt out of the release of that information to any third parties.
- Check your child’s credit records. Identity Force, Lifelock and other companies provide child identity theft protection services. AllClear ID provides a free service called ChildScan that not only searches credit records tied to your child’s Social Security number, but also checks employment records, criminal records, and medical records to recognize at an early stage if your child has become a victim of identity theft.
What to Do If You Find Evidence of Child Identity Theft
If, despite your best efforts, your child has become a victim of identity theft (which most commonly comes to you attention when your child receives notices of outstanding bills), you should do the following:
- File a police report.
- Contact each of the three major credit reporting bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — and ask them to remove all false information and inquiries fraudulently associated with your child’s name or Social Security number.
- Send each of the three agencies a copy of the Uniform Minor’s Status Declaration [PDF] that explains that your child is a minor.
- If you haven’t done so already, put a credit freeze on your child’s accounts.
- Contact any businesses where the child’s information was misused, explain that your child was a victim of identity theft, and ask them to correct their records.