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Criminals Target Children for Identity Theft and Fraud

New survey finds that nearly 1 million kids were targeted by criminals online in the past year

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It’s a crime that sends a shiver of fear through parents and grandparents: A criminal steals a child’s identity and uses the youngster’s personal information to open credit card accounts or make mobile purchases. Such crimes can go undetected for years because kids aren’t filing taxes or applying for loans, which would typically flag ID fraud.

Child identity fraud is a serious problem in the U.S., according to an AARP-sponsored report by Javelin Strategy & Research, which explores threats in the digital financial world. Last year 915,000 children — 1 in 80 — were the target of identity theft, and 1 in 43 children were affected by a data breach in the period from July 2021 to July 2022, Javelin’s survey found.

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The growth in social media and time spent online, plus the increasing reliance on digital transactions, has added to the risks for kids, according to Tracy Kitten, author of the report and Javelin’s director of fraud and security, who notes, “That just opened the door for cybercriminals.”

A costly problem

Losses tied to child ID fraud reached $680 million, the report states. The good news is that’s down from last year’s $918 million lost, possibly due to greater public awareness, according to the authors.

But resolving child ID fraud took families an average of 16 hours, up from 13 hours the year before and 7 hours longer than when adults are victimized.

“It’s a major headache for consumers,” says Kitten. And it’s a migraine for the financial industry because it absorbs some of the losses, especially when the child’s information is used to create a synthetic identity — a mash-up of details from a real person and a phony one.

Thus, it’s critical to educate children and the adults who care for them about safe practices online and ways to look out for identity fraud.

Kitten notes that monitoring kids’ online behavior is also extremely important, particularly when they are very young. And many are: 51 percent of households reported first allowing their children to access the internet at age six or younger — when it would be particularly easy to “accidentally click on a link that’s malicious,” she notes.

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Social media poses extra risk

Sharing on social media is fun, but savvy criminals lurk on platforms and exploit posted information to create fraudulent profiles. Identifiers stolen from data breaches or other means are bought and sold in underground forums on the internet. When parents or children post personal information on sites, criminals can figure out where the kids go to school, their birth dates and other identifying details. And it all adds up.

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“If you just look at something in isolation, you’re probably not going to figure too much out,” Kitten says. “But if you look at what people post over time, it’s easy to put together a profile.”

Most of the victims of child identity fraud in recent years — 67percent — knew the perpetrator, according to the report. The bad actor may be a parent’s spouse or partner, another relative or a family friend, she says. 

Protecting your family

Kitten warns parents and grandparents to avoid using passwords that include combinations of identifiable information, such as children’s birth dates. The numbers may be easy to remember, but criminals who get them could try to gain access to the adults’ email or bank accounts.

A con artist might pretend to be someone a child knows, and ask for personal information — and children may share it without realizing how vulnerable that makes them. If a child accepts a friend request from a spoofed account, the criminal potentially has access to the people the child is connected to online. Bad actors may try to friend their grandparents and other family members, pretending to be one of the child’s pals.

“This whole cycle just perpetuates itself,” Kitten explains. “A child becoming a victim of identity theft can quickly lead to a grandparent being compromised in some way, through social engineering.” 

5 tips to stay safe

  1. Educate yourself and the children in your care about safe online behavior. Teach them not to accept friend requests from people they don’t know and not to provide personal information online to anyone. Monitor their social media use, since children with unlimited internet access are more vulnerable to identity fraud.
  2. Monitor children’s online activity, since identity fraud is far more likely among kids with unlimited and unmonitored internet access than among those whose online activity was scrutinized.
  3. Be careful about what you and your children post on social media. Keep personal information private. 
  4. Monitor your financial accounts. Consider freezing your children’s credit until they are old enough to look for a job and open a checking account or are applying for a student loan or credit.
  5. Consider an identity-protection service for you and your children. These alert you when your personal information is being used.

The Javelin findings are from a survey of 5,000 U.S. adults taken in July 2022. Here’s the full report: Child Identity Fraud: The Perils of Too Many Screens and Social Media.

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Editor's Note: This story, originally published on March 16, 2022, was updated to include new information.

Kathryn Masterson is a writer who previously worked for the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Associated Press and the Chicago Tribune. Her byline has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer and Washington City Paper.

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