There’s always plenty in the media warning us about the dangers of identity theft to ourselves. But one area where identity theft rarely seems to focus is on children. Since children are typically not active users of credit, we tend to be far less concerned about the potential damage caused by identity theft. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t or can’t happen.
Identity theft and kids: how it happens
You may be wondering why a thief would steal a child’s identity – and it’s a reasonable question. After all, kids rarely have credit lines or bank accounts, at least not in their own Social Security numbers. What possible benefit could there be to a thief?
In reality, identity theft occurs for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with stealing your assets or using your credit. There are millions of people who are looking for an alternative identity so that they can obtain employment or even certain government benefits. Some will steal an identity because they are in the United States illegally. But some others will take it a step farther, and try to obtain as many identities as they can for as many purposes as we can imagine. Medical identity theft, for example, can be a major problem.
In such situations, it doesn’t really matter if the person who is a victim of identity theft has an established financial profile or not. All that’s needed is a name, address, and Social Security number. If it sounds absurd that a thief would steal the identity of the child, consider that some even go so far as stealing the identities of the deceased.
Why it’s a problem
One of the biggest problems with identity theft with children is that it often goes undetected for years. Children don’t normally apply for credit, so there is little need to pull a credit report. And they don’t normally begin applying for jobs until they’re teenagers. Even if the teen does apply for a job, the fact that a bogus credit profile has been established by a thief usually will not be disclosed to the child by the employer who ran the report.
After years of successfully using a child’s identity, the thief may build up a complete financial profile, including credit, employment and even a residence. Upon coming of age, a child can learn that there is a substantial financial profile. Worse, not all of it may be good. If the thief had poor credit or used the credit profile to bilk creditors, the child will start life with that information listed in the credit report. There may even be a record of unpaid liabilities.
How you can protect your children’s identity
It can actually be more difficult to protect your children’s identity than to protect your own. Since the child’s credit profile is inactive, and the child doesn’t necessarily know when not to disclose personal information, it can be close to impossible to know when their identity has been compromised. But there are steps you can take to minimize the potential theft.
Tell your children not to give out information unless it’s absolutely necessary. This can be tougher to manage than it sounds on the surface. Children – especially young ones – tend to be very trusting of other people, especially adults. But you should try to emphasize to them that they should never give out too much information to anyone. For example, if anyone asks for any more than their name and address, you can train them to simply say “I don’t know.” The less information that they give out, the better protected they’ll be.
Keep their Social Security Number (SSN) under wraps. It used to be that in order get a Social Security number you had to specifically apply for it, and this usually happened when a child was a teenager. Today, Social Security numbers are issued at birth, which is to say that everyone has one whether they want one or not. And today, it seems as if everyone wants your Social Security number as a matter of course. The best protection here is not to provide your child with his or her Social Security card, and not to allow them to memorize the number. The combination of their name and Social Security number is an easy target for a would-be thief. Your child most likely won’t need to know his or her Social Security number until he or she applies for a job; until then, keep it under lock and key.
Run a credit report on each child from time to time. Generally, the best way to know if a child’s identity has been stolen is to run a credit report. This isn’t to say that you need to monitor your child’s credit report on an ongoing basis. But ordering a report every year or two will let you know if a theft has occurred. If there is any information on the report – other than what you know to exist – there’s a strong likelihood of theft. But you’ll only know that if you run a credit report on your children every now and again.
Don’t talk to strangers! This is probably the oldest warning in existence given to children, but it applies with identity theft as well. In addition to physical safety concerns, children should avoid talking to anyone they don’t know particularly if that person is requesting information that could identify them. There should be no reason to give a stranger any information, including your name.
Order a credit freeze or extended fraud alert. If your child’s identity has been stolen, you should proceed in the same way you would for yourself. You should order either a credit freeze or extended fraud alert to the credit repositories (Trans Union, Experian and Equifax), and then file a report with the police. The freeze or fraud alert will prevent further use of your child’s identity, while the police report will launch a criminal investigation.
If you are worried about identity theft for yourself, you should be equally worried about it happening to your children. Thieves are looking to steal identities for all kinds of reasons that make absolutely no sense to the rest of us. That means we have to be on guard all the time, and even more so for our children.