Teaching Kids About Identity Theft
Are you prepared to teach your kids about one of today’s biggest online threats? Identity theft can happen alarmingly early and have an enormous impact on a child’s financial future. Savvy thieves often target children precisely because they have no financial accounts or history – as a result, many victims and their families fail to detect the theft for years. But with your help, your child can play an active role in keeping herself safe. Here’s how to share the information she needs.
What is identity theft? Although the term gets used frequently in the media, even older children may not fully understand that identity theft occurs when one person uses another person’s name or private information to open a checking, credit card or other type of account. Explain that although this can seem abstract – it’s not the same as someone stealing your toys or your car – it has big consequences.
Use jargon-free language to lay out some of the crime’s likely outcomes. If someone opens and misuses an account in your name, it can prevent you from getting the money you need to buy a car or house. Identity theft can make you look untrustworthy when you’re applying for college or for a job. If your identity thief commits other crimes, government records may even end up listing them under your name. Your identity, including information like your Social Security Number (SSN), is important property and needs to be kept secret for the same reasons that we lock our front doors.
Make sure your explanation is age-appropriate; young children may need reassurance that identity thieves aren’t a physical threat like burglars, whereas teenagers will be ready for more detailed information about how credit cards are issued and used.
How do we prevent it? Once your child understands what identity theft looks like, explain how it happens and how you can deal with it. Most warning signs of identity theft (including declined applications for government benefits, strange bills or collection calls and financial mail items like pre-approved credit cards addressed to a minor) will be more visible to you than to your daughter or son. Instead of detection, your conversations with your child should focus on prevention.
For starters, explain the different kinds of personal information that identity thieves use (name, address, SSN, phone number and more) and the degree to which each should be confidential. Information can be stolen both in person and online, so teach your child to be suspicious of entering personal details into unfamiliar websites and to opt out of writing his SSN on school forms whenever possible. Home addresses and phone numbers should never be disclosed on social media. This conversation also gives parents a chance to talk about other online dangers, such as stalking, bullying and social media over-sharing.
Sadly, many thefts of children’s identities originate with relatives or family friends. As with other kinds of safety, your child should know that the rules about what information is and isn’t okay to share extends even to adults they know well.
What steps will keep your child safe? Finally, talk your child through the concrete steps you will take together to ensure that her identity stays safe. Both of you should watch for the warning signs mentioned above. Inquire with your child’s school about its data protection policies and keep a close watch on how much information about your child is posted on school websites, including those hosted by extracurricular activities like sports teams. Simple, commonsense procedures are also helpful – for example, make sure you shred any forms or documents with your child’s information before discarding them.
Although you may be tempted to request a routine credit report on your child to check for thefts, doing so can actually make her more vulnerable by creating a report where none had previously existed (minors, whose financial actions are strictly limited by law, should have no recorded financial history). If you’ve spotted warning signs, request a report carefully using a written cover letter. Consider requesting such a report around the time your child turns sixteen to ensure that he or she is heading toward adulthood with a clean slate. If the report turns up any problems, you’ll still have time to correct them before college costs arrive. When you do so, include her in the process so that she’ll be ready to do it on her own next time and can feel confident and in control of her own financial situation.
Although identity theft is a threat, you and your child can prevent it with vigilance and some simple precautions. By doing so together, you’ll keep her future bright.
Find out more about how you can protect yourself and your family at BrightStar Credit Union’s Security & Fraud Center: https://www.bscu.org/FraudCenter/index.htm