Child Identity Theft Is a Real Thing And Can Have Some Horrifying Repercussions
By the age of three years old, children start to develop a sense of identity, recognizing themselves as tall or short, male or female, child or adult. However, “preschoolers typically do not link their separate self-descriptions into an integrated self-portrait”.
In other words, most three-year-olds don’t have an identity as understood in a psychological or cultural context, but that doesn’t stop them from being the victims of identity theft.
According to the website US Legal, child identity theft definition is an instance of “true identity theft in which the victim is a minor child. Child identity theft occurs when a child’s identity is used by another person for the imposter’s personal gain”.
With over one million children in the US falling victim to child identity theft in 2017, knowing how to protect your child from identity theft is crucial to your child’s future and your family’s well-being.
How Does Child Identity Theft Occur?
In most cases, the perpetrator gets their hands on the child’s social security number and then uses that to apply for credit. For as long as the impostor is getting away with using that SSN (Social Security Number), he or she can keep adding new layers to their credit file and, over years, can create a complete, yet false, financial identity.
Many parents secure an SSN for their children as soon as they’re born so they can get medical coverage, open a bank account, include their child as a dependent on their tax returns, apply for government services for the child, or buy savings bonds for them.
Unfortunately, as soon as an SSN is in place and in public, the danger begins.
Why Would Someone Commit Child Identity Theft?
In many ways, child identity theft offers perpetrators more opportunities and more time than any of the different types of identity theft affecting adults. As the senior president of research at Javelin Strategy and Research, Al Pascual, pointed out, “As adults, we’re hypersensitive right now to the idea that our identities are at risk and our personal information is out there. We’ve Jedi mind-tricked ourselves into thinking this is an adult problem”.
The reality is, “thieves are more likely to capitalize on kids’ data”, with statistics indicating that there were more child victims of data breach incidents in 2017 than there were adults. Why? Pascual explains, “Children are more likely to become fraud victims after a breach because their core identity elements, like Social Security numbers, are more valuable for criminals”.
Information about a child’s identity is more appealing because it’s never been used so criminals can have a field day opening new accounts and borrowing money, safe in the knowledge that a credit report won’t reveal anything untoward.
In many instances, the perpetrators of child identity theft are people close to the victim, usually a relative or close family friend. In some instances, it’s the parents themselves that are responsible. Why on earth would a parent go to such lengths, knowing the horrifying repercussions of such an action?
Fundamentally, it’s money that drives people to commit child identity theft. When it’s committed by the parent, it’s usually a last-ditch attempt to cover bills and keep utilities running. The author of Child Identity Theft: What Every Parent Needs to Know, Robert P. Chappell Jr., says that while a parent may commit child identity theft to get the electricity turned back on, “it doesn’t usually stop there”.
“If I get my heat turned back on, it snowballs ingot getting the cable turned on. Or purchasing an item I try to justify as a necessity,” Chappell says. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, the child’s credit is ruined and often, familial relationships suffer as well, with 17% of victims saying the attack negatively impacted on home life, while also causing stress, anger, and anxiety.
The Frightening Repercussions of Child Identity Theft
Few toddlers or preschoolers are likely to apply for a car loan or credit card, so child identity theft can be difficult to detect. Often, victims of child identity theft and their families carry on their lives, oblivious to the fact that an impostor is using their child’s social security number for many years.
In fact, most only discover the ugly truth when they hit their teens and apply for a college loan or to buy their first car. By then, the damage is well and truly done, and recovering from it may take years and still not prove to be 100% successful.
A Reddit user shared her experience of child identity theft, saying that, at the age of 25, with a full-time job paying an above-average wage and a reasonable amount of savings, her credit rating was still in the gutter after being the victim of child identity theft a decade or more earlier.
The individual said, “I have been working on fixing it [my credit rating] since I turned 18 but… have not been able to totally undo the damage”. As a result, the Reddit user experienced problems in finding accommodation and had been forced to sublet as she couldn’t pass the credit checks required by most landlords.
For victims of child identity theft, a poor credit rating may be the least of their worries as they battle with trust issues in their personal relationships and struggle to find a job due to the impact the crime had on their employment history. Victims of child identity theft also experience emotional repercussions which we’ll look at in more detail later. But the most important thing to know is how to protect a child from identity theft.
How To Protect Your Child from Identity Theft
As always, prevention is better than cure, so following these security best practices will help keep your child’s SSN where it belongs and protect your child against the possibility of child identity theft:
- Keep your child’s SSN as safe as possible. If a school requests for your child’s SSN, see if they will accept a different identifier instead so you don’t have to make their SSN public.
- Ask schools, doctors, and other organizations with access to your child’s personally identifiable information what measure they take to safeguard that data
- If your child’s school is the victim of a data breach, get in touch and find out the details of the breach and what information may have been exposed
- Shred any documents with your child’s personal data on before you discard them
- Be aware of the threat those closest to you could pose to your child and give your child advice about what to look out for.
- Freeze your child’s credit – this is a more complicated process than those listed above but is one of the best ways to protect your child from identity theft. First, you need to send copies of your child’s birth certificate, social security card, and government ID to each of the three credit reporting bureaus.
- The necessary forms can be accessed online with both Equifax and Experian. Once the forms are completed and submitted, you will receive confirmation from each credit bureau that the freeze has been activated, along with a PIN which you can use to unfreeze the account.
- Sign up for an identity protection service like Identity Guard which will monitor the Dark Web for any instances of your child’s SSN and use ISM Watson artificial intelligence technology to detect personal threats, including cyberbullying. Given the correlation between bullying and child identity theft – “minors who are bullied online are more than nine times more likely to be victims of fraud than minors who were not bullied” – this is a valuable feature. Identity Guard also gives you $1m identity theft insurance and will help you and your child recover from an attack.
- Use the best parental control apps to protect your child online, monitor texts and calls, and block access to potentially dangerous sites. Not only can a parental control app protect your child’s identity, but it can also help you keep track of their physical safety by using GPS to keep tabs on their movements.
After prevention, the next step in protecting your child against identity theft is to be aware of the warning signs, which include:
- Your child receives irregular notifications through the mail, such as pre-approved credit cards or loan offers
- An application for government benefits is rejected because your child’s Social Security number is already claiming benefits elsewhere
- A credit report already exists in your child’s name
- You receive a notice from the IRS informing you that your child hasn’t paid their income taxes
- Your child’s online accounts are being used to post spam or other suspicious messages
If you detect any suspicious activity of this nature, you should take the following steps
- Getting in touch with the three major credit reporting agencies and requesting two manual searches of your child’s file, one using both your child’s name and SSN, and another using only the SSN
- Should any information associated with your child be in their records, you can ask for it to be removed, although you will need to complete a Uniform Minor’s Status Declaration form which confirms that the child is a minor
- Keep records of the dates you contacted those agencies and retain copies of your correspondence
- Contact any organization where your child’s information was misused and ask them to close those accounts and make a note of the identity theft incident
- Place a freeze on your child’s credit
- File a fraud report with the FTC
- Report the incident to IdeitntyTheft.gov and get a recovery plan
Different Types of Child Identity Theft
In addition to the most common type of child identity theft which is, in effect, what we’ve been discussing so far, there are two other types. One is synthetic child identity theft and the other concerns the theft of a deceased child’s identity, which is commonly known as ghosting.
While deceased child identity theft is virtually the same as child identity theft committed against a living child, the victims are different. Obviously, the child will never have to deal with the repercussions of identity theft, but bereaved parents will have to deal with the emotional fall-out while also trying to prove their child’s true identity to the IRS and other authorities.
The Agins experienced this exact situation after their four-year-old daughter tragically passed away back in 2012. Despite the devastation, the Agins tried to carry on life as normal and went attempted to file their taxes, only to find that someone else had already filed a tax return claiming their daughter as a dependent.
Regardless of how closely you guard your SSN during your lifetime when you die, it’s immediately recorded in the Social Security Administration’s database. All the information contained therein is publicly available, so as John Breyault of the National Consumers League explains, “Consumers can go online, on any number of sites, and get full name, date of birth, and full Social Security number, which we call the holy trinity to personally identifiable information”.
The Social Security Authority has since taken steps to reduce the amount of information it releases publicly, while the IRS “has installed identity theft screening filters on its computer systems to flag suspicious returns”. This is of little use or comfort to the Agins, however, who said, “It’s bad enough losing your child to any type of disease… but then to have somebody steal their identity, the last remaining vestige of your child, it’s horrible”.
Synthetic Child Identity Theft
Synthetic identity theft, or “the Frankenstein of identity theft”, as its sometimes called, occurs when an identity thief creates a new identity using a random collection of personally identifiable information. Since the randomization of social security numbers began in 2011, it’s become much easier for criminals to make up a number.
“Fraud-detection measures used previously have become ineffective because it’s no longer possible to pair a Social Security number with a location or approximate age”. There’s every possibility that a randomly invented social security number could end up being issued to a newborn baby, in which case, “the child’s credit rating will be in tatters before he or she even learns to crawl”.
Although the CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center, Eva Velasquez, says there is a solution in the pipeline, it could still be years before we see the introduction of a “process where financial institutions and other credit grantors can verify an applicants name and number with the Social Security Administration for identity confirmation”.
In the meantime, Velasquez recommends freezing your child’s credit to prevent anyone from opening bogus credit accounts using your child’s SSN. Keep reading for more useful tips on how to protect your child from identity theft.
Case Study: My Mom Stole My Identity
For years, Axton Betz-Hamilton’s childhood was haunted by an identity thief intent on stealing the family’s mail. The situation was so severe, paranoia set in and the family effectively cut themselves off from friends, neighbors and other family members to try and prevent information from being leaked to whoever the identity thief was.
At 19 years old, Axton requested her first credit report and found herself in the bottom 2%. Shocked, she realized, “The identity thief had followed me to college”. Axton’s attempts to inform creditors about the child identity theft were met with derision.
The perpetrator’s identity was only revealed some 16 years later when Axton’s mom passed away. While going through her personal items, Axton’s father found an overdue credit card statement in her name along with her birth certificate and a few other documents. Immediately, the penny dropped – all those years of suffering had been caused by her own mother!
The sense of betrayal was only made worse by her mom’s apparent support for Axton’s award-winning work on child identity theft. In an interview, Axton said “ My mom was, for lack of a better word, a low-grade psychopath. They are world-class manipulators. I was telling her everything I was doing to find the person who was stealing my identity, so she was always one step ahead”.
This unnerving tale of theft and betrayal highlights the horrifying repercussions of child identity theft and, worse still, makes us contemplate just how far children can or should trust their own parents!
Child Identity Theft Definition Conclusion
Despite popular belief, child identity theft is more common than adult identity theft and “kids under 18 are 35 to 51 percent more likely to be victims of identity theft than adults”. Therefore, putting in the necessary safeguards to protect your child’s identity as well as your own is crucial.
Child identity theft can be difficult to detect and has long-lasting consequences, with victims battling to secure loans due to poor credit rating and struggling to establish and maintain close personal relationships due to trust issues.
While there are plans to initiate a more effective identity verification system that could protect people of all ages against identity theft and credit fraud, in the meantime, it’s up to the individual and the parents to be on their guard and use all the means available to reduce the risk of identity theft.
Parents can freeze their child’s credit which will go along way to protecting their children, while the use of one of the best identity theft protection services can help to keep you one step ahead of the criminals, by constantly monitoring data sources for suspicious activity and leaks of sensitive data.
If you want your child to have the best chance in life, you need to protect them against child identity theft and make sure they’re familiar with the accepted child identity theft definition and aware of the warning signs. Obviously, in their early years, the responsibility is all yours and taking the necessary precautions will save you a lot of time, money, and heartache in the future.