The school year is winding down. Your teen uses his phone to post the dates of your upcoming family trip to California on his Instagram account. He’ll celebrate his birthday on vacation! In anticipation, he takes a selfie in the living room, backed by your entertainment center. Friends and strangers wish him a happy birthday. How old will you be, someone asks. He proudly answers that he’ll finally be 17.
And in under four minutes, your son has given:
A headstart for anyone who wants to steal his identity: full name on the Instagram account, birth date and – if he tags his location in the photo – your home town.
The dates that you’ll be in a distant state away from home.
A sampling of the electronics inventory in your house.
Unless you consciously guard your data, thieves can easily piece together details of your life, allowing them to burglarize your house and/or steal your identity, among other possibilities. Of the options available to a criminal in this scenario, stealing your son’s identity is the least risky and most profitable.
How can you protect your teenager’s identity? The most effective way to protect teens from identity theft is to raise their risk awareness. Teens need to know:
- which personal information habits can make them vulnerable to identity theft
- when it is appropriate to share information and how it is safeguarded
- steps to take if their identity has been stolen
There are new ways invented all the time to get at your kid’s and teen’s personally identifiable information (PII). In fact, the average age of ID theft victims is 12. While you may not be able to stop them all, this is a game of odds. The more aware you are of tactics thieves use, the more likely you can prevent identity theft. Whether data is compromised through social media, email phishing, filling out a form at your doctor’s office or a phone call from someone posing as an IRS agent, the dangers are real and the impact is significant. Read on to learn how to recognize the signs that your teen could be a mark for an identity thief and what you can do about it.
Does your teen understand identity theft?
Because teens have grown up with a free flow of information via the internet (and social media in particular), they consider it part of the backdrop of life. Many teens treat their personal information casually. Also, teens’ brains are not fully developed to consider long-term risks. Consider that the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for decision-making, is not fully grown until age 25!
Like the example above, it is ridiculously easy to gather information from social media accounts over time. Add in other ways of harvesting data such as database hacks and phishing scams, and we should all be surprised when our data is not stolen.
All this means that they need some support from you in learning to guard their information, though they may understand the digital piece faster than you will. As a team, then, forge an agreement about what they will and won’t reveal on social media and other platforms. Agree on steps you will take to safeguard their data and a long-term plan to keep it secure.
Soon enough, they’ll be managing their own credit profile and risk. On the plus side, the threat of identity theft can actually set the stage to practice more responsible data and money management.
How can a stolen identity affect my teen’s future?
A stolen identity means that your teenager begins adult life with a black cloud hanging over his head.
- He may be turned down for employment because of poor credit.
- If his SSN has been used by someone else who is employed under the number, this complicates your teen’s ability to file a tax return with the IRS or again, to hold employment.
- Applying for college financial aid will be difficult because the entire system documents someone else to be the assignee of his own social security number.
- His applications for apartments, car loans, credit cards and even an eventual mortgage may all be denied or subject to sky-high interest rates.
- A crime or insurance fraud may be committed in his name.
A stolen identity can mean years of defending against high debt accounts that pop up like whack-a-moles after the fraud has been discovered and seemingly put to rest.
So, a stolen identity is a very big deal. Teens need to understand exactly what’s at stake so they can take steps to prevent it.
Children and teens are valuable targets for identity thieves.
What makes their data so sought-after? Identity criminals consider a new social security number a prize. Consider this: it has no credit history attached. It’s not likely to be tracked by credit reporting agencies or be checked by an adult trying to take out a loan or applying for a credit card. In fact, the theft may not be discovered for years, until your kid is old enough to apply for credit. The length of time before the crime is detected means that it is harder to catch identity thieves who will have maxed out the accounts and slipped away.
How Does it Happen?
There’s a method of fraud on the rise called synthetic identity theft, in which identity is built using a combination of real and fake PII.
According to LifeLock.com, synthetic identity theft is the fastest growing method for stealing an identity. If a thief learns a social security number, it’s the cornerstone to build the rest of a profile. The thief creates an identity, using the social security number to build a fake person. Without an existing credit file, banks have little information to confirm the true identity of the applicant. They may reject the application the first few times, which only serves to build a credit profile for this fictitious person. Over time, this practice builds enough of a profile to approve the first card or loan. This is the point of “bust out” where the thief will harvest all cash and merchandise to be had before skating off to let all the accounts go into default.
Data Risks and Power Hacks to Thwart an Identity Thief
According to a 2018 study on teens and social media use by Pew Research Center, Forty-five percent of teenagers say they are online “almost constantly”. Your discussions with your teen about identity theft should focus on that phone in their hand. Then talk about locking down their credit report.
Does your teen spill all on Instagram, Facebook or Snapchat? While scrolling through the random mass messages with my son on his Instagram account, I noticed this prompt: “What your followers want: 20 facts about you”.
I thought, Some of those followers will use those facts for purposes other than social bonding. And ditto for those fun online quizzes I see on Facebook. I glanced at my son to share this insight but stopped short when I saw his amused expression.
I realized that my son saw this information request completely differently. He was intrigued and already planning what he would share.
During our animated (!) discussion, I tried to help him see that information gathered on social media accounts can be compiled over time. Combined with data from other sources, a complete profile of a target is created. Generally, the more specific the posts your teen contributes and the more complete his profile, the more follows or likes he’ll get. This alone influences many to overshare to get social validation.
And our instincts about what we should share become dulled by the stimulation of mass approval.
Power Hack #1 Take Your Power Back! Begin with Awareness and Skepticism of Social Media:
Review data on one of your teen’s accounts with him at your side. Make a game out of listing the information that each comment, picture or video will give to an audience that they wouldn’t know otherwise. Pay close attention to details like names, addresses, locations, user identification to other accounts, backgrounds with specific details and other PII (personally identifiable information).
Use the list as a discussion starter about what is public information and what should be private.
Social Media guidelines
In general, teens shouldn’t post:
- full names on any account – nicknames are better. Vary account nicknames – never use the same ID across different platforms
- full names of anyone else
- phone numbers
- email addresses
Other Important Tips
- Keep location services turned off on the phone when taking photos. If you’re not using it for a specific function like getting directions, it should stay off by default. Ditto any geographic sharing setting on Snap Chat or other platforms.
- Crop any identifying information out of photos.
- Use the highest security settings in each profile.
- Opt to share information only with “Friends” that you know personally and trust.
- Be skeptical. Ask yourself questions like: Who is this person? How do I know them? Why are they asking for this info?
This continues to be a favorite way for thieves to gather information. Teens may consider email as a way to communicate more officially (vs. texting, for example). Because of this, they may not initially give emails the scrutiny needed to keep their data safe.
Power Hack #2 Strengthen Your Teen’s Anti-Phishing Skills.
Phone/Online Phishing – What is it? According to Colleen Tressler, Consumer Education Specialist at the FTC, “Phishing is when someone uses fake emails or texts – even phone calls – to get you to share valuable personal information, like account numbers, Social Security numbers, or your login IDs and passwords”.
The FTC has created consumer resources to help us fight phishing schemes. As this type of fraud grows ever more sophisticated, anyone can get pulled into a phishing scam.
First, caution your teen to treat any unsolicited email or phone call with extreme caution even if it appears to be from an organization they trust. This is especially true of an alarming message urging them to act quickly.
In addition, scammers now have the technology to mask the true originating call numbers and make it appear that a known organization – like your bank – is calling. Let it go to voicemail and then call your bank directly to see if they really made the call.
Unless a DNA test confirms it, assure your teen that they’re not a descendant of Nigerian royalty. And delete that email that tried to convince them that they were.
Power Hack #3 Don’t share credit card account passwords/PINs (Maybe not a power hack, but absolutely essential)
As older teens acquire credit, they need to understand the risks of trusting others with sensitive data. It’s become more commonplace for teens to share credit information with others. Talk to your teen about pre-ordering those movie tickets without revealing this information to a friend. And while you’re on the topic, have they shared your credit information with anyone?
What do you do if she lost her cell phone?
Power Hack #4 Lock Down that Lifeline.
Phones are so much a part of our lives now that we may forget how much data is actually stored on them. Syncing data between devices is so convenient that it’s become routine. Yet, think about the degree of risk when so many open accounts are clustered on one easily lost or stolen phone. How many of your teen’s accounts could be accessed if your teen’s phone was lost?
The most obvious tip is to lock the phone with a passcode and keep it private. And, always, log out of all apps stored on your phone. Take it further. Subscribe to services like Lookout, Crookcatcher or Prey Anti-theft. The basic (free) services provide app security and location tools. Premium services provide higher levels of security like anti-virus, safe browsing and secure WIFI notifications. Other smart features provide backup services, remote shutdown and alarm if your phone is lost.
In the event of loss of cell phone, remember to change all passwords for accounts accessed on the phone.
What do you do if he lost his wallet?
Power Hack # 5 Create an Inventory of your Wallet and a Plan for Its Loss.
Like the cellphone, the many different data points that teens routinely carry in wallets poses a big risk for identity theft.
Ask your teen to create an inventory of the contents of their wallet. Depending on the age of your teen and their degree of independence, this may include:
- credit card information; bank name, account number, customer service phone number (don’t record pins, 3 or 4 digit security codes and expiration dates with account #)
- Driver’s license data – license number
- Insurance card information and carrier customer service number
- Other information – membership cards, etc.
Store your inventory in a safe or a safe-deposit box along with your Social Security Card. (That’s not in your wallet, right?)
If your teen’s wallet is lost or stolen, immediately use the inventory list to:
- Call bank or credit card issuers – report the cards or other account info as missing/stolen
- File a police report with your local police department
- Call one of the major credit agencies Transunion, Equifax or Experian and place a fraud alert. You only have to call one of them. They are required to share alerts with the other two. It will last for 90 days. If you haven’t already, subscribe to a credit monitoring service like Lifelock or Identity Guard. Equifax 800.525.6285 Experian 888.397.3742 TransUnion 800.680.7289
- If your teen’s Social Security Card was in the lost wallet, Call the IRS Fraud Protection Unit at 800-908-4490.
- Replace a lost driver’s license through DMV as soon as possible
- Stay on top of this, continue to call any other entity/individual to report loss of PII
- New wallet = new inventory
Did your teen lose a passport? Call the State Department Passport Office at 877-487-2778.
My Teen Uses the Same Passwords for All Accounts and Shares them with Friends
Power Hack # 6 Ask your teen to create strong, unique passwords for each site that they change periodically.
Teens are known for creating many accounts and using the same passwords or similar passwords for each. This shortcut makes it easy to hack with password decoder software across multiple profiles and gather all the information stored in each.
My Teen Relies on Public WIFI Connections to Save Cell Data
Power Hack # 7 Guard your data on public WIFI.
Your teen needs to know that public WIFI cannot be blindly trusted. Identity thieves are busy thinking up ways to exploit public WIFI. A quick search on YouTube will yield results demonstrating how easy it can be to compromise public network by creating a “man in the middle”. This strategy puts their computer between you and the network you think you’re on.
Another method is to create a WIFI hotspot with a look-alike name. Think of having the choice between connecting to “Airport Guest WIFI” and “Airport Public WIFI”. Which one is real and which is someone posing as the airport’s WIFI? If you choose the wrong one, the thief has access to your data.
If you can’t avoid public WIFI completely, you can decrease your vulnerability by using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) and a two-factor authentication on your accounts. Better yet, either pay for time on a legit mobile hotspot connection or use your cell data plan.
Okay, so you and your teen have agreed on these identity theft prevention strategies. Creating good habits like these are going to decrease the likelihood that his data will be stolen.
But what about those data breaches at your teen’s school, his dentist’s office or even that hospital where he was born? That requires a different strategy. Should I Check My Teen’s Credit?
Power Hack #8 Because a newer SSN is a valued commodity, check your teen’s credit and consider placing a fraud alert or a freeze on the profile.
As prevention, visit the link below to get free credit reports from each of the credit reporting agencies:
This is an important move but doesn’t replace all the other responsible data habits. Here’s why: thieves can do a lot of damage without opening a line of credit with the SSN. A fraud alert places a temporary request in the file that a credit applicant provides extra confirmation of identity. A freeze keeps the credit profile locked down until it is “unfrozen” by you or your teen.
If the worst has happened and you find your teen’s identity has already been compromised, don’t panic. Together, you and your teen can fix this.
What to Do if Your Teen Has Been a Victim of Identity Theft
Here’s an overview of the steps to take right away. Notice that this is a similar process that is required for a lost wallet, but acting on a confirmed case of identity theft is far more involved. For more detailed info about this process, go to identitytheft.gov
Step 1 Call one of the Credit Reporting Agency to place a fraud alert (or a freeze) on your teen’s credit profile and get a copy of their credit report.
According to the Identity Theft Resource Center, each credit reporting agency has different requirements to inquire about and/or obtain a minor’s credit report. Mail the information via certified mail with return receipt to ensure your information was received.
- Equifax – Visit here for more information. The link provides a list of the documentation you will need and asks that you provide a letter of explanation.
- Experian – Visit here for more information. The link provides a list of the documentation you will need to send as well as a form that needs to be filled out by the parent/guardian submitting the request.
- TransUnion – Visit here to fill out TransUnion’s form.
Per TransUnion’s website, “You can also email email@example.com. Remember, do not email sensitive, identifying or account information.”
STEP 2: Call Each Company that You Know is Involved
- You want to start a conversation first, then back it up in writing with documentation by registered mail. Explain that your child’s information was stolen and that someone has assumed his or her identity. If your child is under 18, he or she is considered a minor and cannot be bound by a legal contract.
- Ask the company to close the account and give you written confirmation that your child is not responsible for the debt.
- File an Identity Theft Report and create a Recovery Plan at identitytheft.gov.
- You may choose to file a police report with your local police department – Many companies now require copies of a written report.
- Request copies of the falsified application.
- Send a letter registered mail to document the entire conversation. Once you have this document (see below), include a copy of the FTC Identity Theft Report and a copy of your child’s birth certificate. Include a copy of the police report, even if not requested.
- Keep a running record of each conversation or communication with dates, names and other details.
What’s the difference between a fraud alert and a freeze?
A fraud alert is in effect for one year and can be extended by request. It displays an alert on the credit file which is visible to financial institutions. It states that the account is at risk for identity theft and asks that additional scrutiny and additional documentation be required from the applicant to confirm identity. Once a fraud alert is created with one credit reporting agency, the two others will be alerted as well. There is no cost to set a fraud alert.
A freeze is more restrictive. It prevents any application for credit until the account is unfrozen by a special log-in and P.I.N. assigned by the credit reporting agency. A freeze will remain in effect indefinitely. With a credit freeze, you need to apply separately to each credit reporting agency. There is no cost to apply an account freeze.