Targets Too: Youth and Identity Theft

by Larry MagidIt might seem as if children and teens are unlikely victims of identity theft, but the Federal Trade Commission has estimated that about 400,000 children have their identity stolen each year. Youth are targets because, unlike many adults, they have clean credit records. Because kids aren’t applying for credit or jobs or renting an apartment until at least their mid-teens, chances are no one is checking their credit reports, so thieves can get away with exploiting kids’ IDs for years. Eventually, older teens will run into a problem when applying for a driver’s license, a bank account, credit card, student loan, or that first apartment.

Kids, like adults, are often victims of phishing scams where they are asked to enter personal information on what appears to be a legitimate Web site but is actually a site set up by criminals to harvest information. Whether they enter a contest, download an animated cursor or music, or make a purchase, kids can be enticed into the same traps as adults if they’re not taught to keep their private information private.

And just because someone is a kid, doesn’t mean that they don’t have private information. Most kids today get social security numbers at a very young age, now that the IRS asks parents to include their children’s social security number when claiming them as a dependent. There is always the possibility that a child’s Social Security number could get into the wrong hands.

Social Networking and Privacy

There is also the issue of what kids post on social networking sites, in chat rooms, and other online public forums. The relatively good news is that most kids do try to keep some information private. A recent survey from the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that while 55% of teens have online profiles, 66% of those teens say that their profile is not visible to all Internet users. While 82% of teens disclose their first name on their profile, only 11% of teens with profiles post their first and last name, and 5% of teens with profiles disclose their full names, photos, and their town in publically viewable profiles. Though this is a minority of teens, it still represents hundreds of thousands of potential identity theft victims.

Putting too much information on a blog or social networking site, says Linda Foley, founder of the non-profit Identity Theft Resource Center, is a mistake. “Clearly blogging is an issue,” she said in an interview. “Everybody doesn’t have to put down their real name or real age on a blog.” She urges children to be especially cautious about quizzes and questionnaires. Hard as this is to believe, Ms. Foley says “there are kids who post their social security numbers on their blogs.” She also warns that ID thieves look for clues such as dogs’ names, mother’s maiden names, and other bits of information that could help them figure out passwords or user names.

The person stealing a child’s identity could be a stranger or someone they know. It could even be the child’s own parent, according to Ms. Foley. “About 2/3 of the time, it is someone in a parental position or in a guardianship.” Children of divorced or divided families are especially at risk. “We often see with split families is that one family member suspects there’s something strange – the child is at the other parent’s home and calls to say goodnight, they see on the caller ID that it’s their child calling but the reality is that the account is in the child’s name.” Some parents, says Ms. Foley, “talk themselves into believing they’re not hurting their child,” and, in some cases, “say they’re going to help their child by giving them a good credit history, but the reality is if they didn’t pay their own bills, they’re not going to pay their child’s bills.”

Guardians have also been known to use their child’s social security numbers and birth certificates to apply for a drivers’ license.

Remedies

Parents of child ID theft victims need to go through the same remedies as with adult victims, including “contacting the three credit reporting agencies, reporting the crime to the police and contacting credit issuers to clear your child’s records,” according to Foley.

Foley’s website, IDTheftCenter.org, has a lot of good advice about helping children deal with the financial, legal, and emotional affects of ID theft.

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