You should also regularly check the credit reports of your children.
That’s because thieves know no bounds when it comes to using the information of innocents for their own nefarious purposes.
“Types of incidents include illicit use of personally identifiable information to obtain loans and credit,” said Mitch Feather of Creative Associates, a Madison-based cybersecurity and infrastructure consulting firm. “Other uses of the stolen identity include getting a job, renting apartments and obtaining utility services.”
Thieves also use this information to get health insurance or medical care, which can be even more valuable than typical financial fraud, said James Mottola, partner at Creative Solutions Investigative Services, a Morris Plains investigation services and asset protection firm, and the former head of the U.S. Secret Service office in Newark.
There are also cases where the victim and the fraudster are not strangers, but friends or family members.
A 2012 survey by the Identity Theft Assistance Center found that one in 40 households with minor children had at least one child whose personal information was compromised.
And for the 14th consecutive year, in 2013, identity theft was the most common complaint to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
HOW TO PROTECT YOUR CHILD’S IDENTITY
Protecting your children’s personally identifiable information — which includes but isn’t limited to Social Security numbers — is no different than protecting your own, Feather said. It has everything to do with awareness and education.
1. Take inventory of who has your child’s information. It’s possible you’ve shared this with schools, houses of worship, doctor’s offices and others.
“Don’t be afraid to inquire how and where they warehouse this information,” said Feather. “Does your child’s classroom — innocently — have the children’s names and birthdays? Or is there a book lying around the classroom with the children’s names, home addresses and dates of birth?”
2. Look at your own information storage systems. Where do you store and save your child’s information? Your PC? Smart phone? On a USB thumb drive? In the cloud?
Feather said you should never store the information without encryption, and the best practice is to not have this sensitive information stored on connected devices at all.
3. Examine where you keep your paper documents, and don’t just toss the important stuff, or even the junk mail.
Mottola recommends you shred whatever you don’t keep, and lock up the rest.
“You need to develop good habits as far as looking at and storing and safeguarding your information,” Mottola said. “It’s really hard to unwind that information it once it’s done.”
4. Educate yourself and your children. Every time you or your child fill out a form, you are sharing information. Stay aware of what you’re giving and to whom, and don’t be afraid to challenge or decline any organization that says it needs your Social Security number, Feather said.
5. Don’t forget to reconsider innocent questions. For example, Feather said, if a friend says they need your child’s Social Security number so they can buy your child a savings bond, they actually don’t. He said the buyer can use his own number for the purchase.
6. Learn to lie, or fib, or whatever you want to call it.
Feather said when you complete forms, you’re asked questions that you need to answer, but nobody says you need to tell the truth. Of course there are many situations where you must be honest, such as telling a doctor’s office your child’s real age. But, he said, other questions are fair game, such as security questions like your mother’s maiden name or make of your first car.
“Nothing is stopping you from putting down `orange stardust,'” Feather said. “All that really matters is that you remember and keep track of what you put down.”
7. Be careful on social media
When children sign up online for email, Twitter, Facebook or other online accounts, the sign-up form often asks for the date of birth. Feather said you should encourage your children to not give their true birth date. Even better, if the site permits it, don’t give any date at all.
The takeaway? Every time another piece of your child’s personally identifiable information is disclosed to another person or entity, his/her surface area of exposure is increased, Feather said.
“You don’t have to be paranoid – just be smart and be aware. Just like so many other aspects of your children’s lives, you must be their advocate and protector,” he said.
HOW TO CHECK YOUR KID
Take the time to make sure no one has already compromised your child.
When you check your credit report — which you can do annually for free at AnnualCreditReport.com — you should also check your child’s. You can’t start too early because a child’s info could be stolen as soon as birth.
In some cases, you may have to make the request in writing.
“Ideally, there will be no credit history on file for the child,” said Experian spokesman Rod Griffin. “That would indicate the child’s identity has not been used in an attempt to commit credit fraud.”
But if there is evidence of fraud, Experian said, it would work with parents to correct things and protect the child from further troubles.
You can also be proactive, Feather said, and create an empty credit file for the child and then freeze the credit report — something allowed in New Jersey but not in all states. (Click here to see the full state list here.)
Feather recommends parents also periodically request their child’s annual Social Security earnings record, which you can do at http://www.ssa.gov. This can alert you if somebody is using your child’s number to obtain a job, he said.
IF IT HAPPENS TO YOUR CHILD
If your child’s identity has been compromised, open a case with your local police department.
“Whether the victim is an adult or child or elderly, we always recommend the victim — or victim’s parent or child, as appropriate — write up a victim statement and have it added to the police report,” Feather said.
Then contact the three major credit bureaus – Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax – to freeze the credit file and ensure credit alerts are in place, Feather said. Add copies of the credit reports to the case file with the police.
Then file an identity theft report with the Federal Trade Commission and if there was an online component to the fraud, also complain to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3).
Have you been Bamboozled? Reach Karin Price Mueller at Bamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KPMueller. Find Bamboozled on Facebook. Mueller is also the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com.