Although it sounds like something that happens in movies and not in real life, identity theft is sadly a very real problem. And it can happen to our children, too.
New research from a US-based advisory firm reports that almost 1,25 million children have fallen victim to identity theft and identity fraud in 2021, costing their families on average more than $1,100 in damages. The scale of the issue is growing under the increasing influence of social media, remote learning, and digital purchases in our lives.
According to the findings, over half of all cases of identity theft and fraud in 2021 involved children aged 9 or younger; 70% of all victims knew the perpetrators to some degree.
Still, not all is lost. The firm also identifies the behaviors that put children more at risk, how to protect them, and what to do when our children become targeted.
“Javelin has been analyzing identity theft and fraud trends for nearly two decades, making us uniquely qualified to shed light on its growing impact on children,” said Jacob Jegher, President of Javelin Strategy & Research, the company that carried out the research. “We are therefore providing a complimentary resource of insights and guidance to families as they navigate the perils of social media and the digital world.”
“One of the most eye-opening findings from our research was just how much risk children are exposed to when they are not supervised online. Add to that nearly 90% of the households with internet access say they have children on social media, and the picture our findings paint quickly becomes dark, grim, and scary,” adds Tracy Kitten, Director of Fraud & Security at Javelin Strategy & Research, who carried out the research. “Predators and cybercriminals lurk in the wings of all social media platforms, waiting for the moment to prey on overly trusting minors who may not fully understand safe online behavior.”
According to the US Federal Trade Commission, child identity theft involves someone fraudulently using the identity of a minor in various (often damaging) ways. For example, although it is illegal for anyone under 16 to apply for a loan, very few companies verify the age of an applicant against legal documentation. A child’s identity could be used to apply for such a loan, saddling them with paying the sum back. Other nefarious ways in which the identity of minors has been used include applying for credit cards or government benefits.
Minors are enticing targets for identity theft because they don’t have credit scores, outstanding credit cards, or any other type of credit history. This means their identities can be valuable for people looking to meddle with financial products. In such cases, victims only learn that their identity has been nefariously used only later in life, for example, by failing a background check when trying to get their first job.
Children on Twitch (31%), Twitter (30%), and Facebook (25%) were the most likely to have their personal information exposed during a security breach, the study explains. Relatively new platforms such as TikTok also represent a security risk, but its magnitude is not yet known due to a lack of long-term data.
Here are some ideas that Javelin advances regarding how to protect your child from identity theft:
- Freeze their credit.
- Never share their social security number online, or in person, unless it’s for a good reason.
- Limit the number of accounts and services opened in their name.
- Limt what your child (and yourself) share on social media, especially anything containing links.
- Secure your child’s mobile device; use protection software for their device and computer.
- Ensure that physical documents are kept safe and private.
- Teach children to keep their information private.
- Get some kind of identity theft protection service.
Signs that someone is using your child’s personal information illicitly include:
- Being denied government benefits like healthcare because the child’s Social Security number is already in use.
- You are contacted concerning an overdue bill of your child, but you don’t recognize the account.
- Receiving a letter from the IRS that your child has not paid their income taxes. This would happen if someone used your child’s Social Security number on tax forms or job applications.
- Your child being denied a student loan because of bad credit.
Our world is increasingly more digitized and interconnected. Children are especially vulnerable targets of identity theft because they lack the life experience to identify and navigate the situations that put them at risk, making them easy targets. Their identities are also valuable as they are a blank slate, fiscally speaking, putting them even more at risk.
As parents, it falls to us to protect our children until they are able to protect themselves. Hopefully, the pointers here give you a good foundation and the tools to notice when something isn’t sitting right.