"Don't go anywhere with a stranger." It's a phrase almost every parent tells their children once they're old enough to go places by themselves. Many parents, however, don't think to tell their kids what to do if a stranger asks them for their personal information.
Your child's full name and date of birth are all someone needs to steal their identity. To shed light on this form of identity theft, law enforcement professional and former fraud supervisor Robert Chappell, Jr., explores the crime in his new book, Child Identity Theft: What Every Parent Needs to Know. Although more than 500,000 children become victims of identity theft each year--half of them under age 6--Chappell says the threat is one that parents must educate themselves about so they can teach their children how to protect their identity.
U.S. News spoke with Chappell about how to detect if a child's identity has been compromised, creative ways identity thieves steal a child's personal information, and why children are often a better target than adults. Excerpts:
Why are so many children targeted by identity thieves?
A child has clean credit in the eyes of the credit-issuing industry. Within the three major credit bureaus, it is widely publicized that there is no date-of-birth verification, so children have credit they've never used before. Credit card lenders are more likely to give a card to someone with no credit history than bad credit history.
For those who want to abuse credit, a child is an easier target because children don't have the fail-safe mechanisms that adults do. For example, parents who have credit cards receive statements about every 30 days either in the mail or online. That means they're able to notice credit abuses more readily. If you're going to target someone, would you want to start with someone shortly after birth--whose identity you may be able to use until they're 18 years old--or would you want to target an adult, where you're more likely to get caught earlier? The earlier the criminals target children, the longer they can use and abuse that credit.
In your book, you say many cases of child identity theft go unreported because the thief is often a parent or relative of the victim. What makes it easier for people to target children in their inner circle and hide the theft?
They simply have access to information. It's easier for me to steal your identity if I already know your information. However, many times a parent's intention is to borrow information for what they see as the sake of child. For example, they steal their identity to have their utilities turned back on. But then many find themselves wrapped into a situation where they can not only pay their own credit bills but also their children's bills as well. That starts them down the path of ruining their child's credit. Then the problem escalates when parents start to rationalize things like, 'My kids benefit if I get the cable turned back on so they can watch cartoons,' and then it tends to snowball into luxury items.
You say in the book that the lack of a structured system that understands and institutes identity-theft protections is the primary reason foster children are especially vulnerable to identity theft. With foster care lacking a governing body on best practices, is that kind of overarching system even possible?
The president signed a national order last year that attempts to have foster children's credit checked when they turn 16, so if they had their identity stolen, they can use the next two years before they turn 18 to help mend their damaged credit. But that's not going to solve the problem.
What I see as the only fix is for foster-care systems to take ownership of the child; to care for the child's personal information as if the child were their own. The foster parents need to understand that you can't look at individuals anymore and say that an adult is worth more in the credit-issuing world than a child simply because the adult is earning the income. Both are identity-theft targets, but a child is a more lucrative target because of the fact thieves can hide their tracks longer than if they steal an adult's identity.
Another institution you mention in your book as contributing to the child identity-theft crisis is the school system. Are schools taking enough precautions to protect a student's personal information?
The school systems do a fantastic job of educating children, but they're not police officers, and I think it's incumbent upon law enforcement to educate teachers of their role in this process. For example, walk into a typical elementary school classroom and you'll see the children's names and their birthdays so that the classroom can celebrate them. You may see journals containing their name, address, and date of birth left out on their desks. There are a lot of things that have not been modernized that need to change. We need to make sure all of the school employees are trained and all of the classrooms are designed to protect the children's personal information.
What online safeguards can parents put in place for their child if they're trying to build a wall of defense for their email, Twitter, and Facebook accounts?
A lot of times when you first sign up [for a website], they want to know your date of birth. I would encourage for children to either to not give their true date of birth or to not give it at all, if possible--don't just write off that kind of information. You can also give away similar information in pictures, so kids should be careful of what they have on those sites.
What are some ways people steal a child's identity that most parents haven't heard of?
I have a chapter devoted to what's called "the lobby listener." Go to a doctor's office and you go up to reception and they'll ask for your child's name, date of birth, address, ailment of why they're there, and sometimes their Social Security number. If I'm sitting in the room and I see this happen, quite often what I do is I'll write down the information I hear and then walk up to the person and tell them how someone would be able to steal their child's identity with this information.
Record-keeping is also a big one. Whether you go to a school's lobby or a doctor's office, you walk in and probably see records behind the receptionist. If someone wants to break into an establishment, it's a great location and they don't even have to physically steal anything. All they have to do is break in, copy the information, and leave. Any place that keeps documents on children out in the open like that is a high-risk avenue for identity theft.
Naturally a lot of parents panic when they find out their child's identity has been stolen. In your book, you recommend while they work with the police, they should try to not to be "annoying" but persistent throughout the investigation. What are your suggestions on how to do that?
First off, be organized and be helpful. I suggest people create a journal, which is basically a record-keeping system of who you have contacted, what the conversation was, what their contact information was in case the police want to follow up, and the documents you receive need to be organized. Being well-organized will make the police think you can help them solve this crime. The more a parent can do to help the police put the puzzle pieces back together, the more successful the investigation is going to be.
Parents also want to know what progress the police make--it helps a lot of them calm their nerves to know that the case is being taken seriously. They should talk to the investigator about when they can get updates--when they can expect that next phone call--not when they can expect the case will be solved.
How would you feel if your child's identity was stolen?
I would feel like I failed to educate them in some way. I'd feel like it was my fault.