How Does Child Identity Theft Happen & What Can Parents Do About It?

Children and teens are more likely to be victims of identity theft than any other age group. In fact, youth under the age of eighteen are twice as likely as their parents to have their identity stolen [9]. With the rise of smartphones, public WiFi hotspots and a concerning trend toward parents oversharing information about their child on social media [3], protecting young people’s digital privacy is becoming more important — and more challenging. This article will explore how child identity theft occurs online, provide signs to look out for, and outline steps parents can take to minimise the risk and repair the damage from identity theft.

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What is child identity theft and how can it occur?

Child identity theft can be defined as the stealing of a child’s information, such as their name, date of birth, address and personal details, with the aim of impersonating them or fabricating a new identity in order to steal money or gain financial benefits [4]. Globally, this crime is growing at an alarming rate [8] with more than one million children falling victim to this crime in 2017 [10]. Even more concerning is that two-thirds of victims were aged seven or younger [10], although this crime can affect children of all ages, including teens [9]. While 60% of victims of child identity theft knew the culprit personally, the remaining 40% of cases occurred when a stranger illegally gained access to the young person’s private information through a data breach [10].

Young people often make ideal targets for identity theft and fraud because they have clean credit reports and are usually less cautious when it comes to digital privacy [1, 9]. There are many ways that an identity thief may acquire this valuable private information [11]. They may:

  • Hack into online records or accounts containing sensitive information [1]
  • Scour social media for clues to security questions or to build a database of information about your child [9]
  • Access your child’s personal data when they use an unsecured WiFi hotspot [7]
  • Remotely install spyware or keylogging software on your family’s digital devices [7]

Once an identity thief has gathered this personal data, they can exploit it to open fraudulent credit accounts and take out bank loans in your child’s name, effectively gaining control of and potentially ruining their credit rating [6]. Since young people generally do not think about or need to know their credit score until they reach adulthood, child identity theft may go undetected for years [5]. Unfortunately, this crime can damage or restrict their future ability to qualify for student loans, find employment, or even secure a place to live [9].

What are the signs of child identity theft?

There are a number of signals that indicate your child may be a victim of identity theft [10]. For example:

  • Your child may receive bills or pre-approved credit card offers [6]
  • Your child may receive phone calls from debt collection agencies [6]
  • The Australian Tax Office may send your child a delinquent tax notice [6]
  • A bank or credit card company may deny your child the ability to open an account [6]
  • Your child may be denied government benefits because someone else is using their social security number [6]

What can parents do to help minimise the risk of child identity theft?

To protect your family members from child identity theft, it is crucial to take preventative measures and encourage them to protect their privacy when online [1]. Here are five key steps families can take to protect their digital and real-life identities from theft.

#1 Limit the sharing of personal information online

Discuss with your child the importance of caution when posting on social media and why they should maintain strong privacy settings on all online accounts [7]. If your child or teen is not instructed on online privacy, they may accidentally divulge personal information that could endanger them, such as their address or phone number [2]. Even seemingly innocuous information, such as a beloved pet’s name or their mother’s maiden name, may provide clues that help a hacker answer a security question and gain access to an online account [9]. Warn children and teens against completing social media or other online quizzes that ask for overly personal information, as this is an easy trick to encourage younger people to reveal sensitive information. Although it may be tempting to find out which Hogwarts house you belong to, it’s not worth giving up all your private information. As an extra layer of protection against this, encourage your family to set up and maintain strong privacy settings with all social media accounts [2].

Next, consider your own social media habits that may be threatening your child’s privacy. Do you tend to excitedly overshare information about your child on your social media? Do you display a maiden name on your Facebook profile? Are you sharing photos from your child’s birthday party or posting public birthday wishes to them on Facebook? With a quick Facebook search, a criminal can easily scrape this information, including a child’s name, their birth date and mother’s maiden name: three crucial pieces of information that can help them breach an online account or open a fraudulent bank or credit account [8].

#2 Encourage good password habits

A weak password or obvious security question answers can make it easy for a hacker to gain access to an online account [9]. Educate young family members about the importance of choosing strong, complex, unique passwords for each account and updating them often [2]. Discourage your child from sharing usernames and passwords with friends and remember to set up password locks on all devices [2]. For an extra layer of security, encourage your family members to employ two-factor authentication for online accounts [2]. Two-factor authentication will prevent hackers from accessing your child’s account by sending a unique, time-sensitive code to their phone if it detects a login from an unfamiliar device [2]. Use a password manager or vault software to help your family keep track of multiple passwords. Finally, set a positive example by following these habits to protect your online passwords, as young people will notice.

#3 Teach your child to protect themselves when accessing the Internet

Encourage your child to exercise caution when accessing the Internet over a public WiFi hotspot [7]. Although children and teens often consider themselves as technology experts, they should understand that transmitting private information over an unsecured connection can leave them vulnerable to security attacks by hackers [9]. Finally, installing antivirus protection software will help keep your family’s online devices free of viruses and spyware that criminals can use to mine personal data without your knowledge [6].

#4 Avoid sharing personal information in public

In your family, discuss the importance of keeping personal information safe, even when talking in public [6]. Some teens do not realise that sharing their banking information in a public place with friends may create a security risk if that friend proves untrustworthy or someone with malicious intentions overhears the information [9]. In a similar vein, it is ill-advised to access banking or financial apps or any app that requires inputting private information when using public WiFi, unless you have a VPN with security protection installed on your device.

#5 Review your child’s credit rating

Criminals who commit child identity theft will often target young people to exploit their strong credit score for financial gain [9]. Unfortunately, a person may not discover that they have been a victim of child identity theft until they attempt to apply for a loan or credit card in adulthood [7]. Checking your child’s credit rating once every few months or every year will help your family recognise that a crime has occurred before it can cause permanent damage to your child’s credit rating [2].

What should I do if my child has been a victim of identity theft?

If you have reason to believe your child’s identity has been compromised, take immediate action by reporting the matter to your local police.

Final thoughts

With the rise of digital technology and changing social mores surrounding privacy, protecting a child’s digital privacy is becoming more challenging [3]. Globally, child identity theft has become more frequent [8] and this can have significant repercussions for a child’s future, damaging their credit score and hindering them financially [2, 7]. Parents and caregivers can minimise this digital privacy risk by encouraging children to avoid oversharing personal information on social media and in public, teaching a child good password habits, seek secure WiFi, and regularly reviewing a child’s credit rating to detect potential child identity theft [9].

Cyber Safety: The Essential Guide To Protect Your Children Online



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