When Axton Betz-Hamilton went to sign the lease on her first apartment, she got a serious shock. A quick credit check showed she was thousands of dollars in the hole for unpaid credit card bills someone else had racked up in her name. She was just 19 years old.
It wasn’t until years later — after her mother had passed away and she’d earned a Ph.D. in family studies with a specialization in child identity theft — that Betz-Hamilton unmasked the culprit.
Her father had been going through her mom’s old files. Among them was an unpaid bill for a maxed-out credit card taken out in Axton’s name and a copy of Axton’s birth certificate.
The identity thief who had been wrecking Axton’s credit since she was a child was her own mother.1
Did You Know: Nearly 75 percent of identity theft victims know the perpetrators.2
Axton Betz-Hamilton’s story may seem unbelievable, but only if you don’t know anything about child identity theft, which ensnares nearly one in 50 children in the U.S. yearly, according to a 2021 Javelin Strategy & Research report.
Kids are logging in more screen time than ever before for things like distance learning, social media, and even unsupervised online purchases. This means they have even greater chances of running afoul of a predator out to steal their personal data.
FYI: According to a recent study by the Lending Tree, 46 percent of our kids (18 and under) have used our credit cards to make online purchases averaging $500 or more.3
Younger kids might not trust everyone, but they do have a tough time reading intentions. That means a request that’s obviously suspicious to us parents — such as when someone asks Can I borrow your Gmail password for just a second? — might not raise any red flags for our kids.
If you throw a relative, family friend, or even neighborhood acquaintance into the equation, where trust is already implicit, you can pretty much see why so many lowlifes succeed at filching sensitive data from unsuspecting children.
The situation gets even thornier once our little ones venture out onto social media, which they’re doing in record numbers. According to the folks at Common Sense Media, the number of kids ages 8 and up on sites like Instagram and Snapchat is up 17 percent compared to before the pandemic.4 These sites are digital watering holes for grifters without scruples who can con an oversharing adult as easily as an overtrusting child.
What you can do: Teach your kids good digital hygiene. Children simply don’t know that telling someone, even Mary from down the block, when and where they were born can help them do bad things to them. Use parental control software like Google Family Link (free) or Norton (free with a Norton LifeLock subscription), so you know when your kids are online and what they’re up to.
Child Safety Tip:: The more you post online about your kids, the more information a would-be thief can collect about them. If you do share updates about your children online, or “sharenting,” never reveal any personal information that could be used to forge a false identity (birthdates, birthplaces, Social Security numbers, etc.).
Carnegie Mellon’s CyLab carried out the first major study on child identity theft in 2011.5 The results were eye-opening. For example, they found that a lot more children fall victim to identity theft than adults.
It sounds a little counterintuitive at first, but it actually makes sense. We don’t check on our children’s credit because, well, there’s nothing to check. They’re just kids, right?
Actually, that’s precisely why thieves target them. Because we adults don’t check, thieves can get away with their crimes for years with devastating and costly consequences, as the folks at CyLab discovered.
One victim in Carnegie Mellon’s study was a teen from Kentucky named Nathan. At the age of 14, Nathan already had multiple lines of credit and a foreclosed mortgage in his name. The thief, who lived thousands of miles away in California, had even bought a $600,000 home — again, courtesy of Nathan’s Social Security number. The trail of crimes stretched back a decade to when Nathan was only 4 years old.
Another child victim from Arizona had racked up $725,000 in debt by the time she was 17. There were eight suspects in this case, and they’d used her credentials to take out mortgages, auto loans, and credit cards, and to pay for medical bills and utilities.
What you can do: Sign up for a top-rated identity theft protection plan with a track record for stopping thieves cold in their tracks. Many of the best providers also offer family ID protection services, which are especially geared toward helping parents cope with everything from cyberbullying to social media safety.
Did You Know: Children aged 15-18 were at the highest risk for identity theft, accounting for 43 percent of the cases reported to CyLab. Children 5 and under were at the lowest risk (7 percent).
Younger kids and unsupervised online socializing is the perfect storm for identity theft. And apparently this is not an uncommon combination in the U.S.
According to a 2020 poll on children’s health, at least half of U.S. families with tweens and teens, and a third of families with kids ages 7-9, reported that their children were active on social media.6 Youngsters using social media aren’t necessarily fraud risks in themselves. The problem is, many families don’t restrict their usage in any way.
What’s the problem with your 7-year-old logging into TikTok alone? According to the figures at our disposal, it can result in a much higher risk that they’ll unwittingly fall victim to a data breach or an outright con. Compare a 14 percent risk of theft via social media at age 13, for example, to a 63 percent risk at age 5 and under. (At age 13, kids seem to get better at sniffing out bad actors and following digital hygiene best practices.)
The apps that pose the greatest risk for children are Twitch, Twitter, and Facebook. You can also add any social media site to this list where perpetrators can freely DM your kids.
What you can do: Keep your kids off social media for as long as you can. When it’s time to let go of the reins, monitor their activity. Parental control software (see above) can really help here, especially if you start when they’re young. Most important of all, don’t wait to educate your kids on the pitfalls of social media. Kids are quick studies and they can learn to be more careful online.
FYI: One in five 2- to 5-year-olds knows their way around at least one smartphone app. Only one in 10 of them knows how to tie their own shoelaces.7
Early this year, we reported that hackers had targeted 5,366,886 educational organizations in one 30-day period. That mind-boggling figure was just over half of the total ransomware attacks logged that month.
How did we get to this point? Simple. One, most of our schools use vulnerable legacy networks riddled with backdoors. Two, hackers have gotten much more agile and unscrupulous. And, finally, many of us parents don’t think twice about handing over our kids’ sensitive data to schools.
The upshot? Our kids’ personally identifiable information, or PII, gets leaked onto the dark web, where it gets bundled and sold to identity thieves who use it to do all the bad things Carnegie Mellon’s CyLab documented back in 2011.
Except a decade later, that list of criminal activities has gotten even more extensive. It’s also gotten more expensive for families to fix the damage. In fact, the average household loses over $740 to ID fraud and spends an additional $400 on restoration, which results in a grand total of $1,140.
And those are the lucky ones.
What you can do: Don’t ever give your child’s Social Security number to their school (or doctor’s office or summer camp). They shouldn’t be using it as a form of ID or asking you to share it.
Did You Know: Good news for parents may be on the way. The government is developing a background check for creditors that will let them cross-check birthdate and SSN combinations so no “4-year-old” will ever be able to take out an auto loan again.
Nearly all the households victimized by identity thieves never considered ID theft protection. If that’s you, we understand. It’s an easy enough trap to fall into.
Your home is physical. There are walls, windows and doors — physical objects you can protect with an affordable home security system. Your identity, on the other hand, is mostly digital — numbers in faraway databases you don’t interact with everyday.
What you can’t see can’t hurt you, right? Wrong. That’s the mindset that lulls most parents into thinking their families don’t need any extra ID protection for their children.
But the numbers tell a very different story. Between 2001 and 2021, identity theft reports at the Federal Trade Commission climbed from a mere 86,250 to a mammoth 1,434,676!8 Thieves are stealing our identities, and the damage they wreak can easily dwarf a burglar’s average haul of $2,661.9
For child victims, the situation is particularly grim. Child ID theft tends to span years, and many times our kids don’t find out until they’re on the verge of adulthood and buying their first car, renting their first apartment, or taking out a student loan.
What you can do: Invest in a basic ID theft protection plan for your family. Aura ID theft protection is our top pick for families with children. (Identity Guard is also worth looking at if you want best-in-class protection for the little ones.) Once you set your service up, it works just like a home security system. All your sensitive data, including your credit cards, is under lock and key.
If your personal info ever gets compromised in a data breach, you’ll know. If a fraudster ends up with your PII and starts monkeying with your credit, you’ll get an alert in seconds and can shut the grift down.
Child Safety Tip:: If you want to reduce the chances of ID theft to nil for your kids, freeze their credit until they’re 16. To get started, visit the websites of each of the three main credit bureaus — Equifax, TransUnion and Experian — and follow their instructions.
According to Frank Abignale, the former scammer (and now FBI consultant) whose story Stephen Spielberg told in “Catch Me If You Can,” our birthdate and birthplace is 98 percent of the information a thief needs to steal our identities.10
So, yes, online scams have gotten a lot more insidious over the years, but many thieves still operate the old-fashioned way: with basic information people share with them by accident or that they snap up on the dark web from data breaches. The damage they can do with that little bit of info is often catastrophic, especially when it comes to our kids.
The good news is that there’s a very easy way to shut identity thieves down completely. Subscribe to a family ID protection plan.
If you prefer to take your ID protection into your own hands, it’s still a lot better than doing nothing. But you’re going to have to bring the entire family into a huddle and establish some basic internet safety rules. For most parents with younger children, parental control software will need to enter the equation. Here’s our guide to kids’ digital safety to get you started.
Valentine, Genevieve. (2019, Oct 20). In ‘The Less People Know About Us' A Mysterious Identity Theft Hits Close To Home. NPR.
Kitten, Tracy. (2021, Nov 2). Child Identity Fraud: A Web of Deception and Loss. Javelin.
LendingTree. (2022). We show your options, you score the win.
Common Sense Media. (2022, Mar 9). The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens, 2021.
Power, Richard. (2022). Child Identity Theft: New Evidence Indicates Identity Thieves are Targeting Children for Unused Social Security Numbers. Carnegie Mellon CyLab.
Mott Poll. (2021, Oct 18). Mott Poll Report: Sharing too soon? Children and social media apps.
Jackson, Nicholas. (2011, Jan 2024). More Kids Can Work Smartphones Than Can Tie Their Own Shoes. The Atlantic.
Federal Trade Commission. (2022, Feb). Consumer Sentinel Network: Data Book 2021.
FBI. (2022). 2019 Crime in the United States.
Weisbaum, Herb. (2019, Sep 23). Scammers have upped their game. A former conman shares tips for protecting yourself from fraudsters. NBC News.