Should your toddler receive a jury-duty summons in the mail, or debt collectors start calling for your tween, don't be so quick to dismiss those interactions as a quirk of mistaken identity.
More than 1 million children — or 1.48 percent of minors — were victims of identity theft or fraud in 2017, according to a new report from Javelin Strategy & Research. Two-thirds of those affected were age 7 or younger.
"As adults, we're hypersensitive right now to the idea that our identities are at risk and our personal information is out there," said Al Pascual, senior vice president of research and the head of fraud and security at Javelin. "We've Jedi mind-tricked ourselves into thinking this is an adult problem."
Minors face some of the same risks as adults do, with their information being compromised in data breaches.
But thieves are more likely to capitalize on kids' data. Among notified breach victims last year, 39 percent of minors became victims of fraud, versus 19 percent of adults, according to Javelin.
While adults make prime targets for their account balances, the "blank slate" a child provides can enable a criminal to do more damage by opening new lines of credit before someone catches on.
"There's a lot of value in that there's no credit report tied to that Social Security number," said Pascual.
So-called synthetic identity theft, where thieves create new identities using a combination of real and fictitious information, is another risk for minors, said Eva Velasquez, chief executive and president of the Identity Theft Resource Center, which helps consumers dealing with such fraud. The change to randomized Social Security numbers in mid-2011 means a crafty thief could potentially build a profile around a number before there's a victim, she said.
"We're talking to folks who are having these numbers issued to their kids, and they're already tainted," Velasquez said. A newborn's SSN, when you go to file taxes, "might have earnings associated with it and a five-year credit history."
Minors are also much more likely than adults to become victims of familiar fraud — meaning the identity thief is someone they know.
Javelin estimates that 6 in 10 child victims personally know the perpetrator, compared to 7 percent of adults. Family friends were the most common suspect, accounting for a third of cases.
"The big threat is going to be people who are close to the child, for sure," Pascual said.
You might think that being 5 years old would be a pretty good "It wasn't me" defense against a fraudulent five-figure credit card bill. But experts say untangling identity theft and fraud committed against a minor is just as complicated as when an adult is the victim.
You'll still have to go through the same steps with that bank or creditor to prove the fraud, said Melba Amissi, chief operating officer at Identity Guard, which sponsored the Javelin report.
The high rate of familiar fraud makes it tougher to build your case, said Javelin's Pascual. Perpetrators may have used your verified home address or phone to apply for the account, for example. And victims may not be willing to make the necessary law-enforcement complaints to document the problem.
"Do I file a police report against my brother?" he said.
With that in mind, it's key to take steps to prevent your child's identity from being compromised in the first place and act quickly if you suspect a problem.
1. Keep data out of circulation
Don't overshare personal details, such as your child's Social Security number, said ITRC's Velasquez. Not every entity that might ask for it (think: summer camp or the doctor's office) actually requires it.
"Once it's out of your hands … there's not a lot you can do," said Velasquez. "You're counting on the company to be good stewards of that information."
It's also important to talk to your kids about protecting their information, said Amissi at Identity Guard. Parents should know what personal information their children are storing on electronic devices or sharing with third parties, she said, and teach them safe internet behaviors — including how to spot potential scams and phishing attempts.
2. Lock down documents
Familiar fraud is often a crime of opportunity: The perpetrator either already knows or has easy access to a child's Social Security number and other details.
Keep any sensitive personal and financial information out of sight, said Velasquez at ITRC. Lock up paper documents such as birth certificates and tax returns, and password-protect your home electronic devices.
3. Freeze your child's credit
Depending on the state where you reside, you may be able to proactively freeze your child's credit file so that no one (not even your child) can open new lines of credit in his or her name, Velasquez said. Check with your state attorney general and the three major credit reporting companies — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — for details on the process.
If you take that step on behalf of your children, make sure that you're not the only person to know the PIN to lift the freeze, Velasquez said. (You might share that detail with your estate planner or the person named as guardian in your will, for example.)
4. Monitor for red flags
A credit freeze only helps on credit, and there are plenty of other avenues where a Social Security number or other data can be misused, Amissi said. Think fraudulent tax returns, for example, or exploitation to obtain medical treatment or mislead law enforcement.
So be alert for unusual calls or mailings that would point to an adult problem, like that jury summons, collection calls or a rush of preapproved credit card offers.