They wear helmets.
They’re told not to play with matches.
They’re warned not to talk to strangers.
But this is one crime it’s tough to protect them from.
Children are the newest victims of identity fraud — and sometimes, they don’t even know they’ve been exploited.
“Think of them as a tabula rasa. There is nothing more delicious to an identity thief or scammer than to get a Social Security number and information for a child,” said Adam Levin, the author of “Swiped” and the chairman and founder of the identity protection and breach recovery firm IDT911. “In some cases, you can have a 15-year or more run where no one’s looking.”
Thieves steal their Social Security numbers or cobble together information from seemingly innocent social media profiles, school rosters and other sources of juicily useful tidbits including dates of birth, locations and parents’ names, to put together believable profiles, a practice called synthetic identity theft.
About 1.3 million kids are affected annually and 50% are younger than 6, according to Robert Chappell Jr., a 30-year law-enforcement veteran and author of the book “Child Identity Theft: What Every Parent Needs to Know.”
At least one study showed child credit and Social Security numbers abused at a rate 51 times greater than the adult population.
A handful of scammers will hunt through cemeteries for children’s graves in an effort to find leads for old or dormant Social Security numbers, a new riff on the so-called “Day of the Jackal” scam, which refers to a 1970s-era movie that featured a bad guy creating a fake identity.
“There are so many different opportunities, school programs where Social Security numbers are unfortunately given away like rose petals flung in the wind. As a result, they’re out there and vulnerable,” Levin said. “Identity thieves are patient, persistent and creative. Any particle of information they can find and use to find other pieces of info, build a mosaic until they create whoever they wish to create.”
The luckier kiddie victims find out about having had their identities compromised, though they discover it only by accident. For example, debt collectors call their homes or pre-approved credit cards start arriving by mail or their parents’ tax return is rejected due to an already-claimed dependent.
For others, the news hits out of nowhere, like when they’re applying for some form of credit, such as their first Visa or MasterCard. At that point, years of damage have blackened their credit history.
Last week, Shon Shurter found out his 16-year-old daughter’s identity was compromised. (The Free Press does not name children who are victims of crime.) The Columbus, Neb., father suspected something was up when his 25-year-old adopted son got a letter in the mail from an online payday loan company about owing money — which he’d never borrowed. Shurter grew worried about his two minor children, the teen and an 8-year-old son.
He called one of the three credit reporting agencies and was told the little boy’s credit was fine. When the customer service representative looked into this daughter’s file, the tone of the conversation changed. That’s when Shurter said he knew it was bad.
“At first, my heart sank. I’m pissed and I’m going to do something,” the 46-year-old said, recalling how he felt in that moment.
The trouble had started days after her birthday.
Shurter has no plans to tell the 11th-grader what’s happened to her, though she is likely to find out soon.
“It’s my job as a father to protect my children and I’m angry, too, and I want to fix it and I can’t fix it. I’m in limbo. I’m unable to do anything,” he said. “This will affect my daughter’s ability to get a student loan for college or to get a car after high school or to get her own cell phone. It will affect her for the rest of her life.”
He’s begun the process of filing a police report, alerting credit agencies and contacting creditors.
Cleaning up the mess can take years, if the damage is extensive.
Social Security numbers are the ultimate skeleton key for identity thieves who steal the children’s numbers in various ways — from stealing mothers’ purses containing the physical cards to accessing pediatrician offices’ or schools’ records.
Methods also include bribing people in hospital billing departments to scouring enrollment lists for extracurricular activities and benefiting from giant data breaches and phishing schemes.
Child identity theft statistics, in general, are considered conservative estimates because some don’t know yet they’ve been preyed on or because the perpetrator is a family member and relatives are reluctant to turn them in to police. It’s estimated that theft by close friends or family counts for 27% of the incidents.
In 2015, 4% of data breach victims — or 1.2 million individuals — said they’d been notified that their children’s Social Security numbers were compromised in a breach, according to Javelin Strategy & Research.
A 2011 Carnegie Mellon University study found that 10% of the 42,000-plus children whose identity protection scans they examined had someone else using their Social Security numbers. That’s 51 times higher than the 0.2% rate for adults in the same population. The youngest victim the researchers encountered was a 5-month-old.
For Axton Betz-Hamilton, the drama lasted from 1993 until 2009. Her identity was stolen when she was a fifth-grader, though she didn’t learn what had happened until she tried to get electrical service for her off-campus college apartment. Years later, after her mother died of cancer, she figured out that she was the one who’d snatched her identity.
Today, Betz-Hamilton is an assistant professor of consumer studies at Eastern Illinois University, whose research focuses on child identity theft.
“I received a national award for child identity theft research and outreach. It was presented in Indianapolis and my parents came. I have a picture of the three of us. I’m standing there holding my plaque … and the person standing next to me is standing there with no hint of guilt or hesitation whatsoever. Even when she was dying, there was no deathbed confession.”
Betz-Hamilton explained that part of the problem is with the Social Security numbers themselves, which were never designed to be universal identifiers, rather to track earnings for retirement years: “Policy is usually about five steps behind what criminals are doing. They’re outsmarting us constantly.”
She advises parents of minors to be careful about sharing not just their kids’ Social Security numbers, but also secondary but still useful information like their dates of birth and mothers’ maiden names. She cited instances of newborns whose identities were stolen before they left the hospital and of scouts compromised by their troop leader.
In addition, Michigan is one of about two dozen states across the country that allows parents to put a freeze on their children’s reports until they come of age. That way, if criminals try to apply for credit under their name, they’ll be blocked.
“The word nowadays unfortunately is a bad place and as such, people almost have to become paranoid now, because of what they do or where they go or who they talk to by text message or e-mails,” said Shurter, the father of the 16-year-old victim. “The world is full of predators. It could be your neighbor. You don’t know … It’s a world of information out there and everyone’s getting it and if you choose not to do anything, you’re going to become a victim easily. I never thought it would happen to my kids.”
Contact Zlati Meyer: 313-223-4439 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ZlatiMeyer.
How to guard your children from identity thieves
Don’t give out their Social Security numbers. If you’re asked for it, find out if it is mandatory information. If it is, ask who has access to it and how the data, be it a paper form or an online database, is kept safe and, when no longer needed, destroyed.
Protect their dates of birth and mothers’ maiden names.
Have a talk with older children about the importance of keeping private information private. Instruct them to ask you for permission before sharing it with people who ask them for it.
Freeze their credit with the three credit reporting agencies: Experian, Equifax and Transunion.
Signs your children’s identities may have been stolen
Pre-approved credit card offers are mailed to your home, addressed to them.
Collection agencies call and ask to speak to them.
Your children are served notices to appear in court for unpaid bills.
What to do if your children’s identities, in fact, have been compromised
File a police report.
Contact credit agencies.
Keep a journal, detailing everyone you’ve contacted, on what dates, what you said and what they said.