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As Kids Go Online, Identity Theft Claims More Victims

Elizabeth Alterman, |Special to CNBC.com
Monday, 10 Oct 2011 | 9:56 AM ET

Imagine learning that your ten-year-old child owns a home somewhere across the country or that your toddler owes thousands of dollars in income taxes for a job he or she has never held. If those scenarios seem unfathomable, they’re all too real for families whose children are victims of identity theft.

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Education

Because a child’s identity is pristine and often remains unchecked for more than a decade, it is uniquely desirable to identity thieves. Just as appealing to criminals is the fact that a Social Securitynumber with a clean history can be attached to any name or date of birth.

Steve Toporoff, an attorney with the Federal Trade Commission’s Division of Privacy and Identity Protection, says that while there is a feeling among industry insiders that child identity theft is a major problem, it is very difficult to quantify because, in most instances, people have no clue that they are victims until years after the fact.

A recent study based on identity scans of over 40,000 children in the U.S. conducted by Richard Power, Distinguished Fellow at Carnegie Mellon CyLab, found 10.2 percent of the children in the report had someone else using their Social Security number. That figure is 51 times higher than the 0.2 percent rate for adults in the same population.

Prior to the Internet age, child identity theft occurred most often at the hands of a relative who was using the minor’s Social Security number to circumvent bad credit. While the Internet can serve as a wonderful resource tool for children, it can also bring a host of problems right to your doorstep. In addition to cyber-bullying and possible online predators, identity theft is now a problem, and it's going viral.

More Usage, More Risk

Children ages 8-18 spend an average of 10-plus hours per day on a variety of media, according to a recent study from the Kaiser Foundation, making it more important than ever to be aware of the risks involved.

According to Norton’s Online Family Report from 2010, 41 percent of children have had an anonymous person try to add them as a friend on a social networking site, 63 percent of kids have responded to online scams and 77 percent of kids have downloaded a virus.

“From our perspective at Norton and our knowledge of how common it is for kids to download malware — two-thirds of kids in our global study have — we know that it’s most likely that cybercriminals will be the source of a young person’s online identity theft,” says Marian Merritt, Internet Safety Advocate for Norton. “Even having such valuable information as the child’s Social Security number stored on a computer can lead to ID theft. Make sure your child doesn’t use peer-to-peer file sharing software or otherwise risk cybercriminals having access to your private financial information.”

Dr. Gwenn O’Keeffe, the lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ clinical report on social media and author of “CyberSafe: Protecting and Empowering Digital Kids in the World of Texting, Gaming and Social Media” points out that privacy settings are key, especially when it comes to online shopping, another area where children put their identity at risk.

“The way young adults and teens get into trouble is you have debit cards or credit cards and you’re putting your information online and the more of that stuff you do without keeping it private, the more you open up your identity to others,” O’Keeffe says.

When it’s Time to Investigate

Unless there is a reason to believe that the child’s data may have been compromised, Toporoff of the FTC says the mid-teens is a good benchmark age for when parents should begin looking into their child’s credit.

“We know of instances where loans have been taken out, mortgages have been taken out in children’s names,” Toporoff says. “If that is the case, you want to know about that around age 15 or 16, so you can clean up the file before the child starts applying for college loans or car loans or employment.”

For those who would like to take extra measures to ensure that their child’s identity remains a blank-slate, third-party monitoring companies offer a variety of services that allow parents to keep an eye on it.

Steve Schwartz, executive vice president of consumer services, forIntersections Inc., a provider of corporate and consumer identity risk management services, says his company will offer existing customers a chance to safeguard their children’s identities when it rolls out its newest product, kIDSure, this fall.

“As a company focused on all aspects of identity theft and personal protection of data, we just think this is a real opportunity to provide a real value to consumers because there’s no real way to have an idea of what’s going on out there for your kids,” Schwartz says.

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While he doesn’t think children are putting their Social Security numbers online for all to see, he does believe that the distribution of information is symptomatic of the problem.

“I think they share too freely, and I think that’s part of the issue. When you’re on social media and you’re gaming, you still really have to know who you’re talking to and who you’re sharing with. Kids’ accounts should be locked down; their friends should be vetted by someone who knows,” he says.

Compromises of other computer systems also put children in danger.

“If you look over the last five years at the names of companies and institutions that were breached, there are a lot of educational institutions in that list,” Schwartz says. “When somebody asks you for your kids’ Social Security number, your first reaction should be, ‘No. Why do you need that?’ Even in schools, there’s no real need, it’s just an easy identifier.”

“At the very least, they should question why it’s being collected and how it’s being secured,” agrees Toporoff.

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“If a child starts receiving credit card offers or courtesy checks in the mail, things that only an adult should get, that may be a red flag in that, as far as the banks or the credit card companies go, they believe that the child is an adult and most likely the reason for that belief is that there’s a credit file,” Toporoff points out.

Collection calls or telemarketing calls also serve as a warning that something is amiss.

Staying Cyber Secure

Merritt of Norton recommends additional tips to parents and guardians:

  1. Don’t talk to, or accept friend invitations from, strangers on social networks, instant messenger, online forums or virtual worlds. You will have to define what a “stranger” is because often children believe if their friend has already accepted someone, then that person isn’t a stranger. Review your child’s friend list frequently for signs of person who is an unknown.
  2. Limit the posting of private information on websites. People who are your friends will know how to contact you even if you don’t post your every digit on your social network profile.
  3. Understand how privacy settings work on social networking sites and only let your friends and family have access to your profiles, posts, photos and videos.
  4. Make sure you have a strong password (not your pet’s name, birthday or address) for e-mail, social networking and gaming accounts and don’t share it with anyone — not even your best friends, and not even “just once.” Never reuse the same password on more than one account; use a password manager (built into your online security software or your browser) to make this easy.

Being proactive can help prevent a child from falling prey to identity theft. For young adults, the often-trying teenage years don’t need to be further complicated by cleaning up someone else’s credit mess — that happens to have their name on it.