In 2021, over 75% of parents share their children's information on social media. According to Security.org, a top tech security firm, 8 in 10 of those parents have followers they have never met. And if you (or your child) make money on Instagram as an influencer? Chances are, strangers you've never met are the majority of your followers.
It is so tempting to want to splash your child's cute face all over social media, especially for parents who have friends and family members scattered across the globe. And the explosion of influencer marketing, specifically those brands catering to children and families, makes it difficult to resist the siren call of sponsored content; in 2019, the New York Times reported the toy company Melissa and Doug sent out a call for kidfluencers, offering families free toys and $10 per 1,000 Instagram followers for each post where the child is simply playing with the free toys.
But studies show that, by 2030, children's stolen identities will make up two-thirds of all identity theft cases globally, largely caused by their parents' trigger-happy fingers when it comes to pushing the "share" button.
By 2030, children's stolen identities will make up two-thirds of all identity theft cases globally, largely caused by their parents' trigger-happy fingers.
For identity thieves, children are a prime target; they are very likely to have a clean financial slate to work with, and their parents likely won't know anything is amiss for quite some time. By then, the damage is done.
The Federal Trade Commission describes identity theft "like a puzzle, made up of pieces of personal information." The more a thief is able to glean about a person in one easily-accessed place, such as an Instagram profile, the easier it is for them to put all those information pieces together and walk away with personal information.
Increasingly, identity theft is unavoidable, thanks to the growing prevalence of social media in our lives. "No matter if we were public account, private account, small account, big account," says Sara Murdock, creator of North Country Littles. "Anything that goes on the internet is at risk." The key is to know the common vulnerabilities that leave families and children open to theft. Here are some ways to make an identity thief's job much harder.
The devil is in the details
Little things found often on Instagram—such as birthday parties, visits with the in-laws, and first-day-of-school snapshots outside the front door of a family home—can easily offer up everything needed to steal an identity: date of birth, place of birth, mother's maiden name, location and home address. According to the FTC, just knowing your place and date of birth gives scammers enough information to correctly guess your Social Security number. Remember when everyone shared pictures of their COVID vaccine cards? Yeah, don't do that. (Or at least cover the date of birth.) Double-check every image, story, and caption to make sure personal clues are not on display.
Location, location, location
One of the easiest (and scariest) ways for thieves to get personal information is to mine photos for location details, especially those photos that are captured in the moment and uploaded instantly. Refrain from disclosing your family's location on your bio and in your captions. Never tag yourselves or your children (or especially other people's children) in photos. Be aware of school uniforms or other school memorabilia that may give away where your child can be found most of the day. Turn off the location tracking on your phone and never upload images from where you are, especially if you have an account with large amounts of unknown followers.
"The first thing to remember is that nothing happens in real time," says Brandi J. Riley, a senior manager of Trust & Safety at Airtime. She recommends downloading all pictures after taking them, then uploading them again later on with the location tracking on the phone turned off. "So when you do upload pictures," she says. "It's not automatically in the code of image giving away the address to your house."
Set firm boundaries
Jessica Turner, owner of The Mom Creative, posts pictures of her family often but is clear about the boundaries in place around social media and her children's privacy. "My older two children are of an age where I can ask their permission before I post," she says. Her younger child is less cognizant of consent, but she still makes a point to ask. "Can Mommy share that with her friends online?"
She says her middle schooler, who is 13, is still restricted from using social media. "I think being online is a Pandora's Box," says Turner. "I just don't see that as being a necessity for him right now." But the time will come soon—and when it does, she hopes she's provided a good example through her own social media use. "He very much appreciates that this is a business and our livelihood and understands the behind-the-scenes of that."
How do I know if my child's identity has been compromised—and what do I do next?
There are clues to know if your child's identity has been stolen. Receiving mail in the child's name for pre-approved cards or other offers, notices that your child's Social Security number is already assigned, calls from collectors, or mail to your child from the IRS are all pretty good signs. But even a fraudulent Instagram account can be cause for alarm.
The first thing to do is to report any and all hacked accounts to the platform host, be it Instagram or Facebook. Ask friends and family to do the same to raise the priority level of the issue. If your child's information is found floating on a website, you can reach out to the hosting company to have it taken down. (Find their hosting company with a simple Who Is search.)
If your child's financial identity has been compromised, file fraud and identity theft reports with the FTC, and report the theft to the major credit bureaus.