Watching for signs of child identity theft

Parenting philosophies abound. But one aspect of parenting we can all agree on is that protecting our kids is a big job. 

A hot stove, the neighborhood bully, crossing the street — parents are forever looking out for things in life that could hurt our precious kiddos.

For this mom, the unseen threats are even more frightening, which is why child identity theft is so worrisome. Just imagine the damage that can be done to your baby’s financial profile between the time her Social Security number is whisked away by thieves and the time she applies for credit. It’s a terrifying thought that leaves me feeling pretty helpless.

1 in 40 households

Still, I can’t help but wonder: Is child identity theft a big enough worry to add to the list of keep-me-up-at-night concerns?

According to the 2012 Child Identity Fraud Report conducted by the Identity Theft Assistance Center and Javelin Strategy & Research, 2.5 percent of households with kids younger than
18 experienced child identity theft. 

Put another way, one in every
40 U.S. households have dealt with the nightmare of a minor’s stolen identity.

Typical identity theft tales that make headlines feature nefarious hackers hiding in far-away countries behind sophisticated computers. 

With child identity theft, the real risk lies much closer to home. The vast majority of incidents involve relatives, family friends or neighbors stealing Social Security numbers to apply for jobs, file taxes, receive government benefits or open financial accounts. 

It takes almost a year before anyone notices the theft, according to the aforementioned report, nearly four times longer than when an adult’s personal information is taken.

Signs of theft, steps to take

Signs that your child’s identity may have been stolen include:

  • Receiving credit offers in your child’s name
  • Getting turned down for a first credit card or cell phone because of poor credit
  • Being denied government benefits
  • Receiving information from the IRS about a job the child has never had.

Fortunately, there are simple steps you can take to safeguard your child’s personal information. These are steps you can use to keep your own sensitive numbers and documents safe, too:

Only give out a Social Security number when absolutely necessary. 

Keep important documents such as Social Security cards and birth certificates in a locked safe or bank security deposit box.

Shred any documents that list critical information. 

Be prudent when sharing birthdays, photos and other sensitive information on social media sites.

Credit bureaus and beyond

Consumer experts recommend adults check their credit reports for suspicious accounts every few months using the free service annualcreditreport.com. That method doesn’t work so well for kids since children shouldn’t have a credit file. 

If you have concerns, the Federal Trade Commission suggests contacting the three credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Ask them to conduct a manual search for your child’s file rather than going through the free site. 

The Federal Trade Commission (ftc.gov), Identity Theft Resource Center (idtheftcenter.org) and the Identity Theft Assistance Center (identitytheftassistance.org) also have a wealth of information on the issue and can guide your next steps. 

Bottom line: While the idea of child identity theft is terrifying, the good news is that it’s rare. 

Take the simple steps outlined above to protect your child, and yourself. If your kids are older, talk to them about privacy and prudent information sharing, especially if they’re online and use social media.

Throw in a couple of lessons about how credit works, too. 

Not fully understanding how to properly use debt is a greater risk for the majority of America’s kids than identity theft.


Kara McGuire is a personal finance writer and a St. Paul mother of three. Send comments, questions and story ideas to 
kmcguire@mnparent.com.