Your child might not have a credit card or a checking account yet, but she may still be the target of identity thieves.
Children don’t often have the sort of financial resources identity thieves seek, but they do own something of great value: social security numbers. “It’s an emerging trend,” explains retired FBI agent Jeff Lanza, an expert who speaks frequently about identity theft prevention and risk management. “People with bad credit or people who want to commit fraud are buying these new social security numbers.”
How Thieves Target Your Child
Unscrupulous online companies use computer programs and publicly available information to find numbers that belong to kids, explains Lanza. When the companies find a number that’s issued but inactive, it’s likely that number belongs to a child. Since kids aren’t likely to use their social security numbers until they begin working or trying to open bank or credit accounts, their numbers are attractive prey.
The companies then sell the numbers, referring to them as “credit privacy numbers,” to people who need to improve their credit scores. If a buyer defaults on a payment and the credit is withdrawn, the same person can simply buy a new number and start the process again, says Lanza.
“When your child’s social security number is compromised, you might not be aware that the social security number has been used to commit identity theft for many years -- such as when your child applies for a loan or begins working and files tax returns,” says Jacqueline Klosek, an attorney who has written several books about identity theft and privacy issues. “By that time, significant damage could have occurred, which may have a long-lasting negative impact on your child.”
Protect Your Child From Identity Theft
Most of us understand how to protect our own social security numbers, but it’s critical to protect your child’s number as well. Take these steps to help prevent identity theft for your child:
- Obtain free credit reports. Check your child’s credit report on a regular basis. “My recommendation to parents is to check their child’s credit report three times a year,” says Lanza. By law, each of the three national credit agencies -- Equifax Credit Information Services Inc., Trans Union LLC and Experian Information Solutions -- must allow you (and your child) one free report each year, adding up to three free annual reports. Be sure to only visit the legitimate credit report website, AnnualCreditReport.com, which is set up by the three agencies, cautions Lanza.
- Make sure the card arrives. After you apply for a social security number for your baby, make sure the card actually arrives in the mail, says Klosek.
- Store the card carefully. Don’t carry your child’s card in your wallet or store it in a location where it could be easily accessed by others.
- Don’t disclose the number unnecessarily. “Companies are increasingly aware of the risks of identity theft and are making fewer unnecessary requests for social security numbers,” notes Klosek. However, she still sees requests on camp forms, sports league applications and the like. “If you are asked to provide the number, ask why it is needed and how it will be protected,” she advises. “Resist giving out that number.”
- Freeze your child’s credit. In some states, you may be able to freeze your child’s credit, says Lanza. Do an Internet search with state’s name and the phrase “freeze credit report” to see if it applies where you live.
- Pay for credit monitoring. Because he speaks publicly about identity theft, Lanza makes a likely target, so he pays for credit monitoring for everyone in his family. This may not be necessary for your child, but it’s an option you should evaluate if you note suspicious activity related to your child’s social security number.
“Kids are not immune from identity theft,” says Lanza. “Parents need to protect all their family members.”
Kim Boatman is a Silicon Valley, Calif., journalist who writes about security and technology. She spent more than 15 years writing about a variety of topics for the San Jose Mercury News.