Kate Tuttle: These days, we're all aware of the dangers lurking online and at the bank -- a carelessly dropped ATM receipt or a cluelessly bad password can invite identity thieves to rummage through our private data, ruining our credit for years to come.
But according to identity-theft expert Adam Levin, many parents aren't aware that their children are just as vulnerable. Although only four percent of identity thefts involve kids, Levin says that these cases can be particularly devastating, simply because there are so many years of damage that a thief can do before the theft is discovered. All too often, a young person only finds out that her identity has been stolen when she applies for financial aid to go to college, or for a first summer job -- by which time someone could have done a decade's worth of unseen damage to her credit.
So what's a parent to do? According to Levin, founder of Identity Theft 911 (a company that helps consumers and organizations protect themselves from identity breaches and provides fraud resolution should one occur), protecting your kids should start early -- and educating them is half the battle. I spoke with Levin by phone.
Kate Tuttle: A lot of people are familiar with the idea of adult identity theft. Why are kids also vulnerable to having their identities compromised?
Adam Levin: Before they reach puberty, 400,000 young people a year become victims. The reason why a child is such a rich target for identity theft -- and a great deal of it occurs within the family unit, either by a sibling or a parent -- is because nobody ever checks the credit report of a child. In some cases, [thieves] could have a 10- or 15-year run with someone's identity before there would be any chance that somebody would find out about it.
KT: What can parents do to protect their families?
AL: You can communicate directly with the credit-reporting agencies and ask them to check to see if there's a file on your child. It's where you need to be ever-vigilant. If you get a strange call from a creditor, if you start to see mail coming in with pre-approved credit offers for your child .... Of course, years ago credit was so plentiful that offers were coming in for people's dogs. It means you have to be careful when you carry around any document that has personal identifying information of your child. Many young people get social security cards, and there are instances where parents will take that social security card and place it in a purse or wallet, and then that purse or wallet is stolen; now someone has access to not only your information, but your child's. There's a thing called "synthetic identity theft" wherein [thieves] take your name and address, my social security number and a third person's birthdate, put it all together and essentially create a bionic person. There are different kinds of identity theft. The first is financial -- that's the one we're most familiar with. Then there's medical identity theft. There have been instances when the identities of children were used to secure passports. The identities of dead children in particular are used for this purpose.
KT: It all sounds so daunting. Should parents be checking their children's credit history?
AL: Yes. Go to annualcreditreport.com, which is the government-mandated site, as opposed to the minstrels. [momlogic note: Levin is referring here to the musical ads for freecreditreport.com, which paradoxically is not actually free.] If there's an absence of an existing credit report, that's a pretty good first indicator that you don't have a problem with your child's information.
KT: That means nobody's created a report because there's been no activity?
AL: Right. Never carry a social security card in your wallet. Don't give kids their social security cards or numbers before they know what to do with them.
KT: So even though we're encouraged or even required to get social security numbers for our kids at birth, we should really hang on to those cards until they need them?
AL: Right. Put it in a very safe place. There's been a problem in some sports leagues where kids are required not just to present a birth certificate to confirm their ages, but also to submit it. If you're ever required to submit a birth certificate for any reason, you need to find out how they intend to secure it. There's another area in which we need to be more careful, and that's social networking. If your child is going to go to any of these sites, caution them and monitor them to make sure they're not leaving their birthdates behind. Make sure they're not responding to these quizzes, which are designed to elicit as much personal identifying information on them as possible. Oftentimes, these quizzes are not run by the site; they're run by people who appear to be friends but who can be cobbling that information together and ultimately using it for purposes that are not in the best interests of the people they're victimizing.
KT: How should parents educate their kids about identity theft? What should we be telling kids, and at what ages, about protecting their private information?
AL: I think you should talk to kids right from the beginning. If it becomes just part of the daily routine -- like if you go in the house, you lock the house, so anything you can do to lock down your personal identifying information, you just do. For a nation as presumably literate as we are, it's shocking how financially illiterate we are. And financial literacy starts at home.