Child Identity Theft: How It Happens and Ways to Protect Your Kids

Identity theft is a concern for everyone these days, including children. Learn how child identity theft happens, what signs to look for, and what to do if your child’s identity is stolen.
Kate Daugherty, Author
Melinda Sineriz, Editor
Last updated Oct 12, 2022

Child identity theft happens when someone obtains your child’s personal information through a data breach, hack, or theft and uses it to falsely obtain credit, file tax returns, or even gain employment. According to a Javelin Strategy & Research study, 1 in 50 children were targets of identity thieves in 2021, and 1 in 45 had personal information exposed in a data breach.

Fraudsters tend to target children because their financial lives are a relatively blank slate, and the crime can potentially go undetected for a long time. Most parents don’t think about running credit reports for their children, so a fraudulent account could be open in a child’s name for years and only be discovered when the child becomes old enough to apply for a loan or credit card.

Let’s look at how child identity theft happens, the warning signs, and what to do if you suspect your child or grandchild has become a victim of this crime.

In this article
How does child identity theft happen?
How to protect children from identity theft
Signs of child identity theft
How to respond to child identity theft
FAQs
Bottom line

How does child identity theft happen?

Just like with adult ID theft, hackers use a variety of ways to access a child’s information, often through social media, gaming sites, or even from a school or medical office.

Here are common ways child identity theft happens.

Data breaches

Data breaches occur when criminals illegally obtain personal or confidential information from a company or organization, usually through hacking into secure servers. Depending on the website being hacked, your child’s personally identifiable information may be exposed and made available for criminal use.

Scammers may also use phishing scam techniques, like saying they are calling or emailing from a well-known organization or trusted friend, to try and trick you or your child into revealing personal information.

Family members

It’s estimated that 73% of child identity theft victims know the person who stole their identity. Trusted family members or close friends may have easier access to hard copies of essential documents, like your child’s Social Security card, birth certificate, or paperwork related to investment or bank accounts set up in the child’s name.

Unsuspecting parents may not realize these documents are missing or may not question a close family member's interest in the child’s life. The person can cause a lot of damage with the illegally obtained information, including even trying to claim your child as a dependent on their income tax returns to receive the tax benefit.

Social Security number is widely shared

Safeguarding your child’s Social Security number is vital to protecting them from identity theft. In synthetic identity theft, criminals will create fake identities and attach a child’s actual Social Security number to the fake profile. This allows them to obtain loans, file a false tax return, or apply for government benefits using the child’s Social Security number.

Unfortunately, children in foster care are some of the most vulnerable to having their identity stolen. Many people go in and out of their lives, and sensitive information like their full names, birthdates, and Social Security numbers are on paperwork that can be accessed by case managers, social workers, foster parents, or even their relatives.

According to our survey, 62% of parents check their child’s browsing history once a week or more.

How to protect children from identity theft

The best way to prevent identity theft is to limit the amount and type of information you or your child shares online. Once a criminal has personal information, there’s almost no way to get it back.

Consider these proactive approaches to help prevent identity theft.

Limit access to your child’s Social Security number

Limiting the number of people and organizations with access to personal information is the best way to protect your kids from identity theft. If a school or doctor’s office requests your child’s SSN, ask them why they need it, how they will protect it, and if you can use a different identifier or only the last four digits instead of the whole number.

Protect and shred documents with personal information

Keep documents with personal information securely filed away in a secure place such as a locked filing cabinet or fireproof box. If you need to dispose of documents with personal information, shred them before throwing them away and consider blacking out the sensitive information before shredding.

Educate your kids about identity theft

Talk with your children about the risks of being online and oversharing, especially through social media. Discuss responsible online hygiene and the potential long-term consequences of someone accessing their information. Consider changing the privacy settings on all devices to limit the available data vulnerable to attack.

Know the school’s privacy and cybersecurity practices

Discuss how your kid’s school handles private information and cyber security practices. The U.S. Department of Education prohibits schools from using Social Security numbers as login credentials, but make sure the website or portal is secure and set up two-factor authentication when available.

Consider using a credit monitoring product

If you use a credit monitoring service or other identity theft protection to routinely get notifications about your credit reports from the major credit bureaus, ask if you can add your child to your account. Although checking credit files on a child who doesn’t have financial accounts in their name may seem odd, you’re more likely to catch fraudulent activity before it turns from a minor inconvenience into real damage.

Signs of child identity theft

The signs of child identity theft can be subtle, and the harm may be done before you even know there’s a problem.

To help catch identity theft before it costs you and your child a significant amount of time or money, look for the following red flags:

You receive bills or calls from creditors or debt collectors in your child's name

If someone has opened a line of credit or made purchases using your child’s information, debt collectors, credit card companies, or other organizations may reach out to the owner of the Social Security number used, i.e., your child, to get the debt paid.

Your child receives pre-approved credit offers

If you receive pre-approved credit card offers in the mail addressed to your child, it could mean someone is illegally using their information. Don’t immediately fear the worst, though. Sometimes banks have your child’s information because you or a relative opened an account or college fund in the child’s name.

Once you’ve determined there’s no fraud, call the bank and ask that your child’s name be removed from their marketing lists.

Your kids’ online accounts post spam

Criminals often send spam emails or direct messages from hacked accounts to lure other people into providing their personal information. If you see strange messages from your child’s social media accounts, it could mean a criminal has gained access to their details.

You get a letter from the IRS saying that your child owes taxes

Receiving a letter from the IRS typically is not good news, but if the letter is addressed to your child, it could mean that a thief used their Social Security number to file a false tax return.

Remember that the real IRS doesn’t make threatening phone calls, send texts, or contact you through social media, so if you receive messages through those channels, they are likely spam or phishing attempts.

Your child is denied a student loan or government benefits

If your child’s student loan application is denied because of bad credit, it could mean someone is using their identity fraudulently. Similarly, if your kids are rejected for benefits such as health care coverage or nutrition assistance where they would otherwise qualify, someone may have used their personal information to obtain these services illegally.

Your child has a credit report, but no accounts in their name

A person’s credit history does not start until an account, e.g., banking, phone, utility, or credit card, is opened in their name. Although minors can have bank or investment accounts in their name, often opened by a parent or grandparent, they usually don’t have credit, phone, or utility accounts.

Checking with the credit reporting agencies to see if your child has a credit report and reviewing what’s on it is helpful to see if there has been any fraudulent activity.

Fifty-four percent of households that took part in the Javelin study say they do not restrict or monitor their child’s online activity, which means that following safe online practices is left up to the child, who may not be taking precautions against identity theft.

How to respond to child identity theft

Finding out that someone has been using your child’s identity is scary, but don’t panic. If you discover someone has been using your child's personal information, take these steps to help stop it.

Report and close fraudulent accounts

Start by contacting the companies where the fraud happened and speaking to their fraud departments. Let them know the situation and ask them to close the account and reverse any charges, if possible. If usernames or passwords were hacked, change the credentials on all online accounts as soon as possible, not just the hacked account.

When contacting various fraud departments, have all the documents needed to prove that your child is yours, like their birth certificate, Social Security card, and your driver’s license. Request written confirmation that your child isn’t responsible for the charges on the account if issues resurface.

Report the theft to the FTC

Go to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) website at IdentityTheft.gov to report identity theft and to set up a recovery plan. Select the appropriate fraud type, follow the steps outlined, and provide as much detail as possible to help document the situation.

You may also want to contact the Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit that helps victims of identity theft with their cases, for additional support.

Freeze your child’s credit report and contact the credit bureaus

If your child is under 16, the FTC allows parents to request a free credit freeze of their child’s credit report so it's much harder for someone to open new accounts in their name. A credit freeze prevents any lenders or creditors from accessing your child’s credit history. The freeze will remain in effect until you or your child, if they are over 16, remove it.

Contact the three credit bureaus, Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax, to report the fraud and request a manual search for your child’s Social Security number. If one of the bureaus has a credit report for your child, they should send you a copy and instructions to help remove the fraudulent accounts.

You could file a fraud alert instead of a credit freeze. To add a fraud alert, you must provide a copy of a police report or another valid identity theft report. You only need to contact one bureau, and that bureau will contact the other two. With a fraud alert, any creditors will need to verify your information before issuing your child any credit.

A credit freeze is more severe and completely prevents access to your credit file. If you don’t anticipate needing access to your child’s credit any time soon, you may want to opt for a credit freeze. If your child is going to be applying for credit, a fraud alert may be a better option.

Contact your local law enforcement and get a police report

Once you’ve taken action to secure your child’s accounts and credit report, consider reporting the identity theft to the authorities and filing a police report, especially if you know the identity of the thief.

Sometimes, a company or creditor may require you to produce a police report before clearing any fraudulent charges.

FAQs


+

How often does child identity theft happen?

According to Javelin Strategy and Research, 1.25 million kids were victims of identity theft in 2021. In general, it takes four hours longer to resolve child identity theft than it does for an adult to resolve the same issues. The average U.S. family lost more than $1,000 when a child’s identity was stolen, or $918 million total in 2021.


+

What are the consequences of child identity theft?

The effects of child identity theft can be severe, including being denied a loan for major purchases such as buying a car or going to school due to bad credit. Identity theft may also prevent your child from getting a job or receiving government benefits such as healthcare or nutrition assistance.

In some cases, if a thief is arrested while using your child’s information, those crimes could become associated with your child’s record and cause legal and financial problems.


+

How do you know if your child’s identity has been stolen?

If your child receives bills or demands for payment from creditors, is denied government benefits they should be entitled to, or receives pre-approved credit offers in their name, they may be victims of identity theft.

You may also discover identity theft if your child’s application for financial aid or a new credit card account is denied because of bad credit history or you run a credit report in your child’s name and find unauthorized accounts.

Bottom line

Child identity theft is becoming increasingly common, especially with 89% of U.S. households with internet access also having children who are active on social media.

Be aware of the signs of child identity fraud and have frequent discussions with your kids about the dangers that social media and the internet can hold. Although they may not be interested in having this conversation, it’s vital they understand the risks of having their data exposed or stolen.

If you discover fraudulent activity, report it immediately to prevent further damage. For more information, consider reviewing our guide to identity theft protection and credit monitoring.

Author Details
Kate Daugherty
Kate Daugherty is a freelance writer based in Denver, Colorado. She specializes in personal finance, digital security, and personal privacy.