How to Protect Your Child or Teen from Identity Theft: Cybersecurity Best Practices
When you think about your child’s safety, you’re probably worried about matters like crossing the street unattended or wearing a bike helmet — but internet safety is just as important for your child as it is for you. Proactively addressing this risk now can help avoid troublesome issues later, such as receiving mail claiming that your 11-year-old has been pre-approved for their very first — or even second or third — credit card.
Child identity theft is a more common crime than most people think. It’s easy to assume that minors who don’t have credit histories aren’t a target for this crime. However, according to Equifax, children are commonly used as “blank slates” to apply for credit or receive loans because they don’t have credit histories and their credit is often left unmonitored. This issue has become widespread and costly. According to a 2021 study by Javelin Strategy and Research, over 1.25 million children in the U.S. fell victim to identity theft and fraud during the previous year, costing the average affected family over $1,100 (an annual collective total of nearly $1 billion).
In many cases, identity theft does not become apparent until the child is an adult — perhaps when they are looking to buy their first car or apply for a line of credit. For this reason, it’s important that parents regularly check to see if their child has a credit report on an annual basis, at minimum. Not doing so could result in their child’s Social Security number being fraudulently used for years, leading to great inconvenience when that child becomes an adult.
It can be scary to consider the prospect of your child being the target of identity theft, but there are steps you can take to prevent that scenario. In this article, we will cover the best practices for protecting your child or teen from identity theft so that their transition into financial adulthood is a smooth one.
Read on for a list of cybersecurity tips to protect children from identity theft, as well as what you should do if your child’s personal information has been exposed or if they become victims of identity theft.
While the prospect of youth identity theft can be scary for parents, there are a number of straightforward steps you can take to protect your child’s identity online. It’s important to talk to your children about cybersecurity as soon as they begin setting up their own online accounts, email addresses, and personal devices. Having this conversation early will help them develop good cybersecurity habits from a young age, while also helping them spot cybersecurity “red flags” as they navigate the online environment. We’ve collected some of the most useful cybersecurity tips to help you and your children stay safe online.
Cybersecurity Child Identity Theft Prevention Tips for Young Children
- Store any sensitive documents in safe locations. Whether they’re paper or electronic, it’s important to find safe storage locations for any and all documents that include your child’s Social Security number and other sensitive personal information. If they’re physical documents, a safe or locked file cabinet is a good choice. And online, make sure to store sensitive documents in safe, password-encrypted spaces, like Dropbox, Google Drive, or other cloud-based storage systems with strong security.
- Only share your child’s Social Security number when totally necessary. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recommends asking the following questions when someone requests your child’s social security number: Why do you need it? How will you protect it? Can you use a different identifier? Can you use just the last four digits?
- Shred documents with your child’s personal information before discarding them. If you’re keeping or receiving physical documents that include your child’s social security number or other sensitive information (like date of birth and address), make sure to shred them before throwing them away.
- Keep your online devices free of viruses and spyware that criminals can use to mine your data. To keep your computers safe from viruses and spyware, make sure to install antivirus software and reset your passwords regularly. You can also install ad-blockers and regularly run virus scans. There are a variety of different antivirus software options, and the one you choose will depend on your family’s needs and the features you care about most.
- Check to see if your child has a credit report. In most cases, a child under 18 should not have a credit history unless someone is fraudulently using their personal information. Running a credit report for your child is one of the fastest ways to find out whether or not they have been a victim of identity theft.
- Consider a free security freeze. Security freezes are an important tool that can help you protect your child’s information from being used fraudulently. With a security freeze, a credit report will be made for your child, and then frozen. Companies that provide this service include Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.
- Consider a credit monitoring product. Credit monitoring products keep watch, daily, on your (or your child’s) credit score, and will alert you of any changes. This is an incredibly useful way to detect fraudulent activity with very little ongoing effort.
- Educate your children about good online behavior. As soon as your children have their own accounts online and their own devices, discuss the importance of locking devices with a passcode, and not sharing personal information with anyone online (including their age, birthday, address, where they go to school etc.). Just as children need to learn who they can trust in person, it’s important for them to understand who they can trust online — and who they can’t.
- Back up your family’s data regularly. In the event that your home network is breached, backing up your data can help you restore lost information. According to the FTC, this is an important step in counteracting and preventing phishing attacks. It’s also an important way to make sure that you won’t lose essential documents and information, like medical records.
Cybersecurity Child Identity Theft Prevention Tips for Teens
As teens become more active online, it’s important to educate them on more advanced cybersecurity best practices. Luckily, according to a report from the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), 76 percent of teens are already concerned about the digital security of their personal information. In addition to general cybersecurity safety advice, here are some important tips to help you increase your teen’s online safety.
- Educate your teen on the importance of keeping Social Security numbers and other personal information safe. As teens grow up, they will need more access to things like their Social Security number and birth certificate. (This is especially relevant when applying for jobs or to colleges.) It’s important to explain to your teen that they should never share their Social Security number with someone online unless they have been instructed to do so by a parent, guardian, school counselor, or doctor.
- Educate your teen on the importance of password privacy and security. Take time to discuss the importance of password security with your child, as this is one of the easiest ways for someone to take advantage of their personal information.This includes discussing why it’s a bad idea to “share accounts/passwords” with friends.
- Sign your teen up for a password manager. Password management systems are useful tools for keeping passwords and other personal information safe online. They can even generate (and store) complex passwords, which make for stronger cybersecurity.
- Make sure your teen is using auto-lock on their devices. Once your teen has their own devices (like smartphones, tablets, and laptops), make sure they have an auto-lock turned on. Auto-lock is the setting that requires a login to open the device, rather than allowing anyone to pick up the device and use it. Protecting their devices with a password or passcode will avoid unnecessary security breaches, especially if those devices are lost or stolen.
- Educate your teen on digital security.
- Social media contacts: Speak with your teen about the impact that their social media activity can have, and how they can best protect their information online. Explain the value of setting personal accounts to “private”, and removing metadata from posted photos to the internet. Metadata can, among other things, expose the GPS coordinates of where a photo was taken, and expose personal information about the person who took it. Explain to your teen that controlling the type of publicly accessible content they’ve posted not only protects their physical security, but also impacts their future, whether they’re applying to college or a job.
- Phishing. Social media is one of the riskiest online spaces for teens. It’s common for young users to receive messages from seemingly harmless accounts asking them to click a link or share personal information; this is often a scheme used to steal sensitive information. (It’s also very common in emails.) Educate your children on the risks of phishing as well as the red flags associated with these scams.
- Smishing: Smishing is nearly identical to phishing, but happens via text message. It’s important to educate teens about how to handle unknown texts, texts with links (even from “known” numbers), and what to do if they think they might be caught up in a smishing scam.
- Set up multi-factor authentication for your children’s accounts. According to FOSI, this is one of the most important cybersecurity tips. Multi-factor authentication verifies your identity when you log into an account by sending an access code to a trusted device. This can help prevent fraudsters from hacking into your teen’s accounts. It also means that even if someone does learn your child’s password, that won’t be enough to unlock their account.
- Only download software from trusted sources. Teach your teens to only download software from app stores and other verified sources, and teach them to be wary of pop-up advertisements encouraging them to download new software they don’t really need.
Free Resources for Protecting a Child’s Identity and Location
Cybersecurity is a broad topic and it’s important to educate yourself thoroughly on the aspects that are relevant for your family. The following resources will give you more specific details on protecting your child’s location and identity.
- How to Protect Your Child’s Identity – a guide discussing techniques for defending a child’s identity.
- How to Protect Your Child From Identity Theft – the FTC’s helpful guide for protecting your child’s identity.
- Protect Your Identity (and Your Children’s) When You Travel – tips to help avoid identity theft while traveling.
- The Pros and Cons of Location Tracking – information on what to consider when thinking about turning off GPS on your child’s phone.
Resources for Checking Your Child’s Credit Report
Monitoring your child’s credit report is one of the most important ways to ensure their personal information is not being used in a fraudulent way. The following resources can help you find, monitor, and freeze your child’s credit report in order to protect their information.
- How to Get a Copy of a Child’s Credit Reports – a quick guide for obtaining a copy of your child’s credit reports.
- How to Use Credit Monitoring to Protect Your Child’s Identity – an article discussing how to use credit monitoring to keep your child safe from identity theft.
- Freezing Your Child’s Credit Report – an FAQ and guide to freezing your child’s credit report, which can help you restrict certain access.
Resources on What to Do if Your Child’s Identity is Stolen
Even when you take precautions, identity theft can still happen. If it happens to your child, it’s important to be prepared and understand the necessary steps to take. The following trusted resources will help you understand what to do if your child’s identity is stolen, and how to strengthen your family’s cybersecurity protocols after the fact.
- Report Identity Theft | Federal Trade Commission – a brief FTC guide to reporting identity theft (with helpful links included).
- What to Do If Your Child Is the Victim of Identity Theft – an article offering guidance for what to do if your child is already a victim of identity theft.
- How to Reclaim Your Child’s Identity – this guide discusses how to reclaim your child’s identity in wake of identity theft.
Resources for Password Safety
Password safety is the first step in good cybersecurity. Make sure to educate yourself, as well as your children, on best practices for setting up and changing passwords. Here are some resources to help your children with their password best practices.
- Safe Password Tips Your Child Should Know – password safety tips for your child.
- Strong Passwords for Kids – 2021 – a guide to helping your child make their password stronger and safer.
- 9 Online Password Safety Tips To Teach Your Kids – more password safety tips to teach your child.
- Teaching Children Password Principles – a password best practices guide and developmental principles for child password creation.
Just as you teach your children physical hygiene from a young age, it’s important to teach them good digital hygiene too. Even toddlers can be the targets of identity theft, so it’s important to educate yourself — and your family — on this topic early and often. By understanding the ways in which your child’s information can be used fraudulently, you can better protect your family against that fraud. And, by taking these steps to protect them, you can help their transition into financial adulthood be a positive and smooth one.