Childhood Identity Theft: What Parents Need to Know About COPPA Rights

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Parents, are you taking advantage of your COPPA rights?

After all, your child’s sensitive personal information is extremely valuable. But you have to know your rights before you can start to protect your child’s online identity and security. But nowadays, where to begin?

Lately it seems that children are born and have their entire lives documented online — first it’s by parents uploading newborn photos (along with child’s name and birth date!) to Instagram and Facebook (all of the photos shared with dodgy security settings at best).

Next it’s uploading innocent home videos to YouTube that expose not just a glimpse into the family home, but also potentially reveal personal details like home address, where and when you take vacations, when you celebrate birthdays, and with whom, along with the names, faces, and approximate ages of every family member (why not have the camera zoom in on recent bank statements to make a cybercrook’s job that much easier?).

Crooks could take it one step further, stalking a parent’s Pinterest or Facebook account to learn even more personal details, down to your child’s preferred foods, allergies, doctor visits, friends, sports teams, and so on. All of that information is how online thieves are able to steal a child’s identity and piece together just enough details to cause a lot of pain.

A child’s credit history can go undetected for years, since children should not have credit reports and parents would not expect a problem.

In fact, a Carnegie Mellon CyLab study found that kids under the age of 18 are 51 times more likely to become victims of identity theft than their parents — yes, 51 times more likely! The study tracked more than 40,000 juveniles and revealed that 10.2% — or 4,311 kids — fell prey to some sort of identity theft or fraud, compared to just 0.2% of adults.

Because kids are more vulnerable to identity theft and related crimes, it’s important for adults to limit what types of personal information is shared in schools, online, and via social media.

Sadly, “over-sharing” those details may also risk your child’s future financial security. So watch this eye-opening video to learn five other ways to protect your child’s credit score and online privacy today.

Learning Your Rights

But there are some online security measures the government wants parents to know about.

It may not prevent you from uploading every personal tidbit to social media sites, but it may help open your eyes that it’s not ok for other websites to collect information on your kids without your permission.

One big piece of legislation is the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) which helps protect children’s privacy. Enforced by the Federal Trade Commission, COPPA requires websites to get parental consent before collecting or sharing information from children who are under 13 years old.

Understanding Privacy Policies and Consent

COPPA requires websites to post a privacy policy in a spot that’s plain to see. The policy must provide details about what kind of information the site collects and what it might do with the information.

Websites can request consent in a number of ways, including by email and postal mail. Before you give consent, make sure you know what information the site wants to collect and what it plans to do with it. And consider how much consent you want to give.

Find out how the website plans to use the information — will they use it to target advertising to your kids or will they give the information to other companies? As the parent, it is your right to see any personal information that a website has collected about your child.

But not all websites are happy abiding with every facet of COPPA. For example, earlier this month Facebook complained that parts of the rule restricts the free speech of pre-teens who want to “like” articles online. Here is the 20-page letter Facebook sent to the FTC, arguing that “child privacy laws should not apply to a Web site’s ability to incorporate a ‘like’ button, because that would inhibit free expression.”

Parents, Speak Up

If you think a site has collected information from your kids or marketed to them in a way that violates the law, report it to the FTC at www.ftc.gov/complaint.

Don’t be shy about contacting the FTC, either. Plenty of parents have taken that same step and had a positive outcome. In fact, earlier this month the FTC reached a $1 million settlement with the operator of fan websites for music stars Justin Bieber, Rihanna, Demi Lovato, and Selena Gomez.  The FTC charged that the website operator, Artist Arena, violated COPPA by not requesting parental consent before obtaining personal information on kids under the age of 13.

So even a bad case of Bieber Fever doesn’t excuse the legal obligation to get parental consent before collecting personal information from children.

Plenty of other sites have violated the rules as well — the FTC has settled numerous cases against companies for failing to comply with COPPA, including Playdom (a Disney subsidiary), Girl’s Life, Inc., American Pop Corn Company, Lisa Frank, Inc.,  and even Hershey’s and Mrs. Field’s Cookies.

Warning Signs

What are some clues that someone is misusing your child’s personal information and committing fraud?

  • Your child starts to get bills or notices for products or services you didn’t receive, including medical care.
  • Your family is turned down for government benefits because the benefits are being paid to another account using your child’s Social Security number.
  • You get a notice from the IRS saying the child didn’t pay taxes on income or that the child’s Social Security number was used on another tax return.
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Elaine Rigoli

Elaine Rigoli is PRIVATE WiFi's manager of digital content strategy.