We have all heard the horror stories: bank accounts emptied, credit cards charged, income tax filings hijacked and scams galore. The advent of the technological feats that allow us to make online purchases, make insurance claims, post social news, or perform a variety of virtual activities also make us more vulnerable to identity theft. Many adults have grown increasingly aware of this looming threat and now take precautions, but with the ever-growing exposure to the internet, teens and kids are becoming the new prey for identity thieves.
The National Crime Prevention Council in their publication, Protecting Teens From Identity Theft: A Guide for Adults, defines identity theft (a felony) as “fraud that is committed or attempted, using a person’s identifying information without authority.” Identity theft can be an easy crime to commit, but investigating and prosecuting these crimes are complex and time-consuming.
Trying to teach teens about, and to protect them from, identity theft can be particularly tough. Many teens don’t have a strong understanding of their financial identity, the purpose of a Social Security number, or (in the age of displaying their lives on the Internet) the need to keep personal information private.
Identity theft topped the Federal Trade Commission’s national ranking of consumer complaints for the 15th consecutive year. An estimated 140,000 identity frauds are committed against minors each year, according to FTC identity protection specialist Steven Toporoff.
According to Lifelock writer Renee Morad in her article “Why Teens Are at Risk for Identity Theft,” identity theft is more common among kids, teens and college students than any other age group. According to a 2011 Carnegie Mellon study of more than 40,000 children, kids under age 18 were twice as likely as their parents to be victims of identity theft.
Surprised? Many teens (and younger children) have clean credit reports and unused Social Security numbers (SSN). They are likely to share their personal information online and usually aren’t cautious when it comes to protecting their data.
New York Times writer Ron Lieber in his article, “Identity Theft Poses Extra Troubles for Children,” says that a clean credit report and/or an unused SSN are like diamonds in the rough to an identity thief. A clean credit report is very attractive to anyone who may need or want a financial clean slate. Identity thieves can pair a SSN with any name and birth date and then use or sell the SSN for a fake ID for employment.
Larry Magid, in his Forbes article “Teens Vulnerable to Identity Theft, Financial Crimes and Impersonation,” says that teens are just starting to understand why they should guard their identity. A 2013 study commissioned by the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), found that the percentage of teens who say they are “very concerned” about their identity being stolen has gone from 43 percent a year ago to 51 percent this year.
How does it happen?
Thieves don’t have to work hard when:
▪ Teens share personal info online. Whether it’s Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, status updates are easily searchable and help thieves gather bits of personal data over time, including a teen’s address, phone number or pet’s name, which might just be the answer of a security question for an online banking account.
▪ Online posts on a teen’s whereabouts. An online itinerary can also tip off a thief that the individual and his or her family is, say, on a vacation together or at a grandmother’s birthday party. The thief now knows that the teen’s home is vacant and can be targeted.
▪ Teens rarely check their credit reports or review monthly bills. As a result, identity thieves can go months or years without being suspected. In addition, since teens’ credit reports are usually blank slates, they allow thieves easy access to first-time credit card offers or loans. Thieves may not get caught for years or even decades. Teens don’t find out their identity has been stolen until they apply for their first credit card or a college loan.
▪ Teens share banking info. Teens generally aren’t shy about handing off their credit card number to a friend that is buying group tickets for a baseball game or pre-ordering movie theater passes. This can be problematic if a friend isn’t trustworthy or if someone with ill intentions overhears the exchange of information.
▪ Teens misplace smartphones. Teens use their smartphones to transmit and store troves of personal data. Unfortunately, these devices can be easily lost or stolen and land in the wrong person’s hands.
▪ Teens use public Wi-Fi. When teens use public Wi-Fi, it is easy for an identity thief to obtain personal information that is being transmitted online. Hackers and other online predators can easily snatch their information.
▪ Password set up and sharing. Password sharing is a particularly risky behavior because it can not only lead to crimes but can result in impersonation such as someone logging onto your social networking account and posting as if they were you. Using simple or repetitive passwords for online sites makes it is easy for a thief to access accounts. The answers to their security questions might also be too easy to figure out.
▪ Teens don’t understand identity theft. Teens are often targets for identity theft because the risk of becoming a victim isn’t on their radar. They don’t always understand that their actions are making them vulnerable, and that identity theft can destroy or damage their ability to qualify for student loans, acquire a cell phone, seek employment or secure a place to live.
What to do about it
▪ Talk to your kids. Remind your kids that they are vulnerable to both financial crimes and an impersonation. Start by asking what they know about identity theft and if they know how to protect themselves. Tell them not to carry their Social Security card around — keep it locked up AT home. Tell them to keep their birth date off social media. Explain where to click and not to click on websites and in incoming email.
▪ Credit freeze. Lieber says that one way people can protect themselves from many kinds of identity theft is to put a freeze on their credit reports with Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — the three credit-reporting agencies that make money tracking our financial histories.
A credit freeze is more stringent than a fraud alert. Putting your reports on ice means that any new creditor trying to open an account in your name won’t have access to your credit report unless you go into the system and thaw it. This includes thieves.
The problem with the freeze however, is that a credit report has to be in place before you can freeze it. Since most children don’t have one, it’s difficult to freeze it. However, over the past few years, 19 states now require the credit agencies to help parents and guardians create a new credit report for a minor child for the express purpose of immediately freezing it. Florida is included in that group.
▪ PINs and passwords. Share with your teen that passwords are vital to keeping information confidential. Friends can sometimes become ex-friends so even if they trust someone, it’s a good idea to keep their passwords to themselves. Use the password and key lock features on their cell phones and laptop computers. Be aware of others when entering PIN numbers or completing bank activities. Thieves can capture personal information using cell phone cameras.
General tips for parents
▪ Question school officials and doctors about the necessity of putting your child’s Social Security numbers on their forms — it isn’t always necessary.
▪ Keep your voice down at the pharmacy and physician’s office. People listen.
▪ Don’t ignore the junk mail your child receives. If your child suddenly begins receiving credit card promotions or other solicitations in his or her own name, that’s a red flag.
▪ Shred documents with personal information before you put them in the garbage/recycling.
▪ Passwords should be strong (more than eight characters which contain capitalized and non capitalized letters as well as numeric and other non-alphabetical characters.
▪ Don’t give out personal information on the phone or over the internet unless you initiated the contact.
▪ Keep your virus and spyware software programs updated. Use a firewall to protect the information stored on your computer.
If your teen is a victim
▪ File a report with the local police department. This report is necessary to pursue a case with creditors.
▪ Call one of the three major credit-reporting agencies. The law requires the agency that you call to notify the other two agencies. The agency will place a fraud alert on your teen’s account.
▪ Dispute any bills that show charges you did not authorize. Close any accounts that you and your teen know have been tampered with or opened fraudulently.
▪ To report an identity theft with the FTC or to learn more about what to do after an identity has been compromised, call the FTC’s toll-free hotline at 877-IDTHEFT.
Before a child reaches the age of 16, parents definitely should see if there is a credit file on their children. That will give some time to remedy problems and to clean up the child’s credit file so, by the time they reach 18, they will have a clean credit history going forward.”
Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former heart transplant coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle-school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.