The dangers of growing up in our evermore digitized world are almost infinite. And as technology accelerates and information becomes more accessible, America's youth face a particularly unique problem: child identity thieves, or adults targeting minors and using their information for malicious financial gain. No other generation in history has had to deal with a menace of this nature.
Here's what you need to know:
What is child identity theft?
Identity theft itself is a perennial offense — it's been around since at least the end of Prohibition, when eager minors started pinching IDs to buy booze. But it has come a long way since then. In the age of digital information, identity theft has flourished. Roughly 15 million Americans fall victim to identity theft annually. In 2014, the tally was 17.6 million victims, and it cost $15.4 billion.
This isn't just a problem for adults, either. A 2011 study by Carnegie Mellon's CyLab found that minors are 51 times more likely than adults to suffer identity theft. Of the 40,000 minors in the sample, 10.2 percent had someone else using their Social Security number.
In one case from Kentucky, a 14-year-old boy discovered he had a credit history 10 years long, alleging he had financed a $604,000 home in California through second and third mortgages. In Washington, an 18-year-old girl getting ready for college found that her identity had been abused for her entire life. She was $325,000 in the hole.
The youngest child victim in the study was only 5 months old.
Who's doing this?
The data collected by CyLab suggests that there are three main perpetrators: Organized criminals, illegal immigrants, and family/friends. And while the former two pose very real threats, it's the latter group — family and friends — who experts believe to be the most dangerous. If a stranger steals a child's identity, the responsibility of dealing with it falls on the parents. If a family member steals a child's identity, who is there to help the victim?
Split families can further complicate the matter. Because both parents have access to their child's information, both are faced with the opportunity to abuse it.
Foster children are also particularly at risk because their information is made accessible to so many people. A foster child that changes foster parents a number of times has had their information exposed to all of those "parents" and a host of social workers along the way.
How does this happen?
Parents and legal guardians have unfettered access to their children's personal information. In many cases, a parent, a close relative, or a legal guardian might use the child's Social Security number to commandeer their identity (and clean credit history). Most kids under 18 don't monitor their credit or their identity, so the thieves can exploit that information for years.
And indeed, few credit issuers ask for adequate proof of identity. Often, that means the age of the applicant is never verified. The Identity Theft Resource Center explains: "If the first application indicates that the applicant is 24, the credit agencies will believe that person is 24 until a dispute is filed and proven."
And here's the rub: There is little to no government policy in action to prevent or punish child identity theft. Because these offenses are often discovered years after the fact, it's very difficult to pursue legal action. Many victims get stuck in a boundless circuit of official complaints, credit reports, petitions, and form after form of bureaucratic malarkey.
What happens when a child's identity is stolen?
Axton Betz-Hamilton was the victim of child identity theft. Her mother exploited her identity for almost two decades. Today Betz-Hamilton studies family financial abuse and child identity theft at Eastern Illinois University.
As she explained in an interview, "A compromised identity can destroy a minor's chances of getting into college, or getting a job, prevent them from obtaining a mobile phone, a driver's license, or even from securing a place to live."
Of course, every criminal has his or her own motivations. Sometimes it's to fraudulently open credit cards, buy homes or cars, apply for licenses, obtain employment, pay for utility bills, or even avoid criminal indictment.
"Children's information is constantly being made more accessible," Betz-Hamilton said. "Which makes it harder to keep their identities safe from strangers. But particularly in cases where poverty plays a role, desperate parents with poor credit histories can be seriously tempted to use their child's clean rap-sheet to gain access to utilities, or things they want."
Can child ID theft be mitigated or prevented?
Preventing child ID theft is complicated. Education is truly the best defense. Parents who understand that children are targets for identity thieves can take necessary precautions to safeguard their children. Educating children on the importance of identity privacy and credit security might enable them to better protect themselves, too. The real challenge there is getting minors interested in credit histories.
The Federal Trade Commission also recommends that parents acquaint themselves with the warning signs that their child's identity is at risk. This can be suspicious mail ordinarily sent to adults (like preapproved credit cards), getting turned down for government benefits because they are already being sent elsewhere, or receiving collection calls and bills for services that were never received. If the fraud is caught early enough, action can be taken and retribution may be in store.
But when I asked Betz-Hamilton for suggestions on preventing child identity theft, she was at a loss:
"It really depends on who is exploiting the identity. As a parent, there are always measures you can take to protect your child's information. But when the legal guardian, the person who is supposed to be protecting you, who gave birth to you, named you and likely applied for your Social Security, decides they want to steal your identity, who is there to stop them?"
No one. Which is exactly why our government needs some kind of protection policy to make sure children's identities are safe — even from their closest relatives. Because, while it is important that parents stay vigilant for child identity thieves, there is little to nothing to stop guardians from exploiting the ones they are supposed to be guarding.