Identity theft can be a nightmare at any age, but it can be even more devastating for young people who discover their good name and credit history were destroyed while they were still children.
When children head back to school, parents and students exchange a number of personal documents with school administrators, from medical records to school registration papers and after-school program forms. When sharing this information, it's important that certain measures are taken to ensure that student data is protected.
Child identity theft, after all, is frequently targeted by fraudsters. Since children usually have a clean slate of credit and parents rarely check their credit reports, child identity theft can go on for years before being detected. It's also surprisingly common. In 2012, at least 2.5 percent of U.S. households with children under the age of 18 experienced child identity fraud, according to Javelin Strategy & Research.
Because children have a clean slate of credit, they are ideal targets and their SSN can be like a golden key for an identity thief wanting to open new accounts and rack up debt — and doing this using an unsuspecting child who may not even learn he is a victim until years later when he uses his stolen SSN to apply for his first credit card or rent an apartment for the first time.
Investing in an identity theft protection service, such as LifeLock, for children, can alert parents or guardians when their child's SSN has been used to open up a new account, for example. This alert would come much sooner, and hopefully before it's almost too late to unravel the extreme damage that could potentially be done.
Fortunately, taking proactive steps can minimize the chances of your household being among those impacted. Consider taking these actions as your children head back to school:
- Only share Social Security numbers when absolutely necessary.
If you're asked to provide your child's Social Security number, ask why it's needed and what policies are in place to ensure that it is protected. If you notice any red flags, such as an unorganized office desk or files being stored where anyone can access them, ask where your forms will be kept and who will be authorized to review them. You can also inquire about how sensitive documents are discarded when they're no longer needed.
- Be selective about other personal information as well.
If your child's personal information, such as birthdate, home address and medical information, is requested, don't be afraid to write down on the forms, "information to come later," if you're uncomfortable sharing it. Then, you can follow up with a school administrator to find out why this information is needed.
When it comes to student directory data, you can find some comfort in knowing that thanks to the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), schools are required to notify parents and guardians about their school-directory policy. Parents and guardians should be informed about any third parties that the information is sold to, and allow you to opt out from the release of such information.
- Use a secure network connection and anti-virus software on your computer.
More schools are going paperless and are enlisting the help of an online parent portal to provide student information and remain up to date on school policies, schedules, events and even coursework and grades. When accessing your children's online school resources, be sure your own computer is secure and that fraudsters won't have access to this information. If you're accessing the portal on a public computer or on someone else's computer, also be sure to always log out once you're finished.
- Don't carry your children's personal information.
Carrying around your children's Social Security cards, birth certificates or passports is never a wise idea. It's always better to store them in a safe and locked place at home, and to take them out temporarily, only when needed.
- Educate your children about identity theft.
Identity theft should be a discussion happening between children and parents at home. Parents should inform their children about the risks involved, and educate them to never give out personal information if asked by, say, a teacher, school administrator or the relative of a friend.
Take this a step further, and check your children's credit reports from time to time. If you have a child old enough to understand it, have him or her sit down with you and teach them how to read the credit report and exactly why a good credit score is important for them in the future.
As children grow and move away to college, it's also helpful that they know the importance of keeping their own documents secured, protecting their laptops, cell phones and any other electronics with strong passwords and have any mail that includes sensitive information sent to their home address instead of their dorm.
With these strategies in place, you can be assured that you and your children are taking a proactive approach to fighting child identity fraud. Hopefully, your children will also learn important life lessons about this looming threat that they can carry with them as they grow.