AUSTIN (KXAN) – Children remain the most vulnerable targets for thieves looking to cash in on stolen Social Security numbers, according to researchers at the University of Texas Center for Identity. And a new concern among researchers is parental apathy in a world of almost daily data breaches – large and small.
“[Children] are [at most risk] because their Social Security numbers are generally not in use which makes them really, really valuable to identity thieves,” Katie Stephens, Education Program Manager at the Identity Center tells KXAN. “There are more and more unique ways to get at those numbers.”
According to our sister station KXAN, a 2012 study by Austin-based identity protection company AllClearID finds children are 35 times more likely to have their identity stolen than adults. About one in 10 have actually had their ID compromised in some way, the firm’s analysis of commercial databases showed, up from half that a few years earlier.
A comparable study out of Carnegie Mellon University’s Cylab published in 2011 found children in its sample of those with stolen IDs were 51 times more likely than adults to be victimized by cyber thieves. The youngest, just five months old.
Researchers at the Center for Identity are looking into ID theft trends. They discovered thieves can create what researchers call a synthetic identity – where a thief crafts an entirely new ID using an unused Social Security number and combines it with a separate birth date and name. And because banks and public service companies such as utility companies don’t always catch on, crooks can use the synthetic ID to apply for loans, open a credit card account or file a fraudulent tax return.
AllClearID points to one case where a 19 year-old girl whose Social Security number had been used for a decade. By the time she applied for credit, crooks (possibly multiple using her one SSN) had racked up $1.5 million in debt. That’s an extreme example and Identity Center academics are currently looking into the true cost of ID theft — financially, emotionally and to a young person’s reputation.
“So they’re ready to go to college, start a new chapter in their life and discover they actually owned a 35-foot yacht for the last 10 years,” UT’s Katie Stephens says.
Stephens says many parents are not aware of the risk to their kids’ financial future since their focus is on the daily tasks of getting meals prepared and getting young children to bed on time. Worse, is a feeling of what she calls ‘data breach apathy’ in today’s climate where major retailers like Target and Home Depot have been hit by ID thieves who often sell stolen personal customer information for perhaps a few dollars per ID.
“Most of us, when we focus on these issues, we’re concentrating on the financial information, the banks are taking care of that [breach] for us [by painlessly and quickly replacing credit card numbers]. ID theft is a much bigger issue. And it [costs the victim] hours and hours to recover when you discover the problem,” Stephens explains.
Rich Kennedy, a father of three in Cedar Park agrees. “You don’t think about kids having credit cards, right? So you don’t think I’ve got to check their Social Security number.”
Kennedy’s wife Cartelia says as parents, they’re very aware of keeping their children, ages 14, 11 and 7 safe from physical harm. “We have rules ‘you can’t go here, watch out for cars’ every time they go out. We remind them of this,” she says. And while safety on the internet also comes up, educating the children on giving their Social Security number to strangers falls more to them since parents are the ones often supplying this common identifier to agencies outside the home.
“I think we’ve gotten relaxed when it comes to the kids. We’re just giving it to the doctors’ offices, schools,” Kennedy concedes.
Where are thieves getting my kids’ SSN?
When President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Program into law 80 years ago he said, “This social security measure gives at least some protection to 30 millions of our citizens who will reap direct benefits to unemployment compensation, through Old Age Pensions and through increased services for the protection for children and prevention of ill health.”
The printed Social Security cards of the day even had a warning on the front “For Social Security purposes – Not for Identification.” Yet identification purposes is how most people use their card today. When you sign up your children for youth sports teams, schools and visits to the pediatrician, all require Social Security numbers. While it might be mundane to you, researchers say those forms are where ID thieves can take childrens’ data and exploit it.
Parents should also be cognizant of family members who can steal a child’s Social Security number, a situation researchers admit is difficult to track.
How can I protect my child’s Social Security number
The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) requires your child’s school to send home annual notices explaining your family’s privacy rights, according to the Identity Center’s site. Parents can review a child’s education records and ask for any mistakes to be corrected.
Parents can also ask the school to leave a child’s Personal Identifying Information out of directories and other contact lists. In addition, ask the school which faculty members have access to your child’s information (teachers, counselors, administrators, etc.) and how they will protect it.
Parents can also check free sites like annualcreditreport.com to see if the major three credit reporting agencies have any record a child’s Social Security number has been used to apply for credit. But the CEO of AllClearID, Bo Holland told a conference at the Federal Trade Commission which investigates complaints of ID theft, “This isn’t just a credit reporting issue – checks need to be done on healthcare records, gun records, utilities records et cetera.”
Credit reporting agencies (CRAs):
Signs your child’s SSN may have been used
Your child has an active credit report
You get bills or collection notices for things you didn’t order or buy; these notices may be addressed to your child
You get turned down for government services because someone else is getting paid with your child’s Social Security number
You receive a notice from the IRS that your child’s Social Security number showed up on someone else’s tax return