Well before some children take their first math class or even learn how to count, they have become victims of identity theft. Javelin Strategy Research says more than one million children were victims of identity fraud in 2017. Experian says child identity fraud or theft will affect 25 percent of kids before turning 18. Bart McDonough, author of Cyber Smart knows first-hand about child identity theft. His youngest daughter had a tax return filed in her name when she was much younger.
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“It’s a serious problem that most people don’t concern themselves with much,” he says. “Children don’t have credit, they are not applying for loans, they don’t have credit cards. It’s a really ripe area because to a bad actor, a social security number is a social security number. In fact, they like the children’s identities better because the odds are they are not being monitored.”
McDonough says parents should do everything they can to protect their child’s personal information. He shared these six tips:
Check if your child has a credit report
A credit report is a record of everyone’s credit activity and credit history. Should you be worried if your child has a report? McDonough says it depends.
“It’s not always a red flag,” he says. “Parents are getting kids cell phones and putting them in their children’s name. Depending on how they pay for it, it might generate a credit report.”
McDonough also points out that some medical registrations may also produce a credit report.
Request a security freeze
McDonough says the best way to protect your child’s credit is to request a security freeze from the three credit reporting bureaus: Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion.
“People can’t apply for credit on behalf of your information, they can’t use your social security number, they can’t use your address, they can’t use your credit history in order to take out a loan,” he says.
McDonough says while it’s simple to request a security freeze, it can be time-consuming. He estimates it will take about 30 minutes per credit agency - for a total of 90 minutes. Once you set up the freeze, he recommends storing all passwords and credentials within a secure password manager. When your child eventually needs to use credit, you’ll have to call the three bureaus and temporarily unfreeze the credit.
“I had to change the billing on my cell phone,” he says. “I had to unfreeze the credit for three agencies. Then I had to freeze it again after the whole transaction was done. This was for a minor billing address change on a cell phone. It does come with some inconvenience, but it’s a secure method to protect your credit.”
Guard your child’s Social Security number
You should only give out your child’s Social Security number when necessary. McDonough says just because it’s on the registration form at the doctor’s office, it doesn’t mean you should give it out.
“Often times, just the last four digits will suffice,” he says. “They use it as a tracking code. I would avoid giving it unless they absolutely request it and it makes sense.”
Be careful when opting out of pre-approved credit offers
Has your child ever received one of those pre-approved credit offers in the mail? McDonough says the worst thing you can do is call the company to opt out. Once you contact them, the bank will likely create a credit a file on your child’s behalf.
“My advice is to keep monitoring their credit,” he says. “If credit is not established, then just shred or very thoroughly throw away those preapproved credit offers. If they already have a credit report, of course you’ll want that frozen.”
Lock down your child’s student aid account
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a form that families fill out to apply for financial aid (grants, work-study, and loans) to pay for college. A lot of your child’s private information is included in the form. McDonough says parents should make sure the account is secure.
“Treat it like your banking ID and password,” he says. “Make sure to use a strong and unique password because there is a lot of information that can be obtained about children from that federal student aid account.”
Talk to your kids about keeping information private
Adults and children often perceive things differently. Don’t assume your child will always demonstrate common sense when it comes to privacy. McDonough says parents should stress to their children the importance of keeping passwords, user names and screen names private.
“I think it’s important that there is a deliberate, intentional conversation with your children about the information we have. How it’s private and how it can be used against you,” he says.
McDonough says part of the discussions with your child should center around cyber hygiene. Make sure they have a unique password for all websites. Explain to them the importance of updating their devices with the latest software. Encourage them to employ two-factor authentication for their important accounts.
“Just like parents are making sure children are brushing their teeth every night, make sure they are doing the same kind of things in their cyber life,” he says.
Linda Bell joined FOX Business Network (FBN) in 2014 as an assignment editor. She is an award-winning writer of business and financial content. You can follow her on Twitter @lindanbell