Kids and Identity Theft: Growing Problem ‘From Cradle to Grave’

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It sounds almost unbelievable, but did you know that a child’s Social Security number could be used by identity thieves to apply for government benefits, open bank and credit card accounts, apply for a loan or utility service, or rent a place to live?

Kids almost always have clean credit ratings, and parents aren’t likely to monitor their credit scores. Both of these things make children’s Social Security numbers very valuable to identity thieves.

Several signs can tip you off to the fact that someone is misusing your child’s personal information and committing fraud:

  • You or your child might be turned down for government benefits because the benefits are being paid to another account using your child’s Social Security number.
  • You may receive a notice from the IRS saying the child didn’t pay income taxes, or that the child’s Social Security number was used on another tax return.
  • You may get collection calls or bills for products or services you didn’t receive.

Thankfully, places like the Center for Identity at The University of Texas at Austin is leading the charge on this growing epidemic.

Suzanne Barber, the center’s director, calls identity theft “a problem from cradle to grave” because more and information is being asked for by different organizations. Many school forms require personal and, sometimes, sensitive information. Your child may also participate in programs, like sports and music activities, that aren’t formally sponsored by the school. These programs may have websites where children are named and pictured. Read the privacy policies of these organizations to find out if — and how — your child’s information will be used and shared.

Barber says children are 35 times more likely than adults to be identity theft victims.
But it’s not just kids who need to safeguard their Social Security. Parents and kids alike should learn to protect their Social Security number at all costs. Although businesses and paperwork may ask for your Social Security number to verify your identity, you don’t always need to comply. The next time a form asks for it, learn to leave that line blank.

For example, it’s ok to give your Social Security number to banks when you open a new account — it’s a government requirement that they have it for tax purposes. But when in doubt in other circumstances, ask why they need it. In many cases, you really do not need to provide your Social Security number.

Data Breaches at School: Know Your Rights

You may not know this, but your child’s personal information is protected by law. For example, the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), enforced by the U.S. Department of Education, protects the privacy of student records. It also gives parents of school-age kids the right to opt-out of sharing contact or other directory information with third parties, including other families.

Asking schools and other organizations to safeguard your child’s information can help minimize your child’s risk of identity theft. The Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment gives you the right to see surveys and instructional materials before they are distributed to students. Further, don’t be afraid to ask the school directly for a copy of their privacy policies on surveys and similar data collection.

Your child’s school or the school district may notify you of a data breach. If not, and you believe your child’s information has been compromised, contact the school to learn more. Talk with teachers, staff, or administrators about the incident and their practices. Keep a written record of your conversations. Write a letter to the appropriate administrator, and to the school board, if necessary.

But what’s also a double-edged sword is that despite legislative efforts to safeguard student data on the one hand, the rising popularity of public WiFi means all that effort to protecting kids’ identities is often ignored on the other. That’s because some school districts offer WiFi-enabled school buses and have installed WiFi hotspots around the school community.

That means anything they share over public wireless at school or while riding the bus is just that – public. After all, WiFi signals are radio waves; anyone within range of a public WiFi network can listen in on what users are sending and receiving.

Unlike home WiFi networks, the majority of public WiFi hotspots don’t encrypt the data being transmitted through them. Therefore, when your child connects to a hotspot at school, everything from their email and social media to your family’s photos or even shared bank accounts may be fair game for hackers or identity thieves. A personal VPN like PRIVATE WiFi encrypts your data being sent and received in a hotspot. This is an essential step in the fight against identity thieves and cyber-crooks.

How to Help a Child Victim of Identity Theft

Here are 10 steps you must take if your child has had their identity stolen or compromised:

  1. Contact each of the 3 nationwide credit reporting companies. The credit reporting company will explain that you can get a free credit report, and other rights you have.
  2. Order the child’s credit reports and review them closely.
  3. Consider requesting a credit freeze. The credit reporting companies may ask for proof of the child’s and parent’s identity.
  4. Create an Identity Theft Report.
  5. Explain that the child is a minor and include a copy of the Uniform Minor’s Status Declaration [PDF].
  6. Place a fraud alert.
  7. Contact businesses where the child’s information was misused.
  8. Use these sample letters to ask businesses to close a new account an identity thief opened in your child’s name and/or to remove fraudulent charges.
  9. Record the dates you made calls or sent letters and the name of your contact.
  10. Stay organized: update your files, keep copies of everything, and take good notes.
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Elaine Rigoli

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