By Eric Braun and Sandy Donovan, coauthors of The Survival Guide for Money Smarts: Earn, Save, Spend, Give
You’d be hard pressed today to find an adult who isn’t concerned about identity theft, especially after 2017’s Equifax breach exposed the private data of nearly 150 million people.
As most of us know by now, once an unscrupulous person has his or her hands on data such as your social security number, your date of birth, or even your address, it’s surprisingly easy for that person to drain your bank accounts, run up huge credit card bills, or secure a mortgage—all without you ever knowing. If you’re smart, you’ve already taken the extra precautions to guard yourself against identity theft recommended by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
In theory, children shouldn’t have to worry about the dangers associated with identity theft—after all, they can’t legally open a credit card, apply for a loan, or buy a house. Unfortunately, being a child doesn’t mean you can’t still become a victim of identity theft. Thieves can use children’s social security numbers or other personal data to commit very adult crimes. According to the FTC, the most common of these fraudulent activities are applying for government benefits, opening bank or credit accounts, applying for loans or utility services, and renting real estate.
So, what can you do to protect your child? Here are three important tips.
1. Be vigilant with your child’s data.
This includes on social media—which may feel a little sad. For many of us, it doesn’t seem like it was all that long ago that we were trying to figure out the difference between Friendster and Facebook. Now social media is second nature, and we willingly post a great deal of our—and our family members’—personal information online. It’s a great way to share milestones and photos with friends and relatives, but experts recommend not posting our kids’ names, ages, birthdays, or other personal identifying info online. Whether to post photos is up to you, but experts recommend keeping your privacy settings tight, so only friends and family can see them. When it comes to the internet, though, even the highest privacy settings are really only semiprivate. (Those photos can be copied, for instance.) When you post photos, be careful to turn off geotagging that says where your photos were taken. Don’t talk about favorite pets or favorite music, because information like this often becomes answers to security questions later.
Perhaps less obviously, vigilance also applies to places like the doctor’s office. Don’t be afraid to ask why they need your child’s social security number if they ask for it and how they will keep it safe. And don’t carry things like social security cards and birth certificates around with you (for example, in a purse that could get stolen).
2. Look for warning signs.
Here are several big ones:
- debt collectors calling you about debts you haven’t heard of
- getting bills from medical providers for services you didn’t use
- being turned down for government benefits because the benefits are being paid to another account using your child’s social security number
- being denied health insurance coverage because your child’s medical records show a condition she doesn’t have
- getting a notice from the IRS saying that your child didn’t pay income taxes or that his social security number was used on another tax return
3. Check to see if a credit report has been opened.
Most children won’t have a credit report until they actually apply for and use credit or a loan. So if you find that your child has a credit report, that can be a warning sign that someone is illegally using her private data. To start, you can contact the three national credit reporting companies to find out if your child has a credit report.
If you do discover an unexpected credit report in your child’s name, ask the credit reporting companies to place a fraud alert on the credit report, and file an identity theft report online with the FTC. Initial fraud alerts last for 90 days. Once an identity theft report is created, an extended fraud alert lasts for seven years.
If you don’t find a credit report in your child’s name, you can still go the extra mile to be proactive about your child’s future credit reports. Ask each of the three credit reporting agencies to create a credit report in your child’s name—and then immediately put a freeze on it. According to the FTC, all three will create a file at your request, though you may be charged a fee for the freeze based on your state.
Note that this process can be time-consuming: You often can’t do it online, and you’ll likely be asked to mail personal documents to the credit agencies, which carries its own risk.
Eric Braun writes and edits books for readers of all ages, specializing in academic and social-emotional topics. Books he has worked on have won awards and honors, including the Eugene M. Emme Astronautical Literature Award, a Foreword Book of the Year Gold Award, a Benjamin Franklin Award, and many others. A recent McKnight Artist Fellow and an Aspen Summer Words scholar for his fiction, he earned an M.F.A. in creative writing from Minnesota State University, Mankato. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two sons.
Sandy Donovan has written nonfiction books for kids and young adults on topics including economics, history, science, and pop stars. She has worked as a journalist, a workforce policy analyst, and a website developer. She currently works for the US Department of Labor, developing online tools to help people of all ages meet their career, education, and employment goals. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in labor and public policy. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and two sons.
Eric and Sandy are coauthors of The Survival Guide for Money Smarts: Earn, Save, Spend, Give.
We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.