There are indications that identity theft syndicates are now targeting children. Common-sense practices, backed up by proper education, will save endless trouble down the line.
In the online world, identity theft has become big business. People are remarkably careless about divulging personal information online or storing it on unencrypted mobile or other digital devices. Criminals can use this information to open bank and store accounts and access state and other benefits unlawfully. Personal information like full names, birth date and parents’ names can be used to create an alias that stands up to most scrutiny.
Worryingly, there are signs that identity thieves are beginning to target children specifically. The rationale is clear: a child or teenager will have an unblemished credit record that will unlock the vaults of credit-granting companies, and could even be used to access desirable things like social grants, university funding and even housing.
Young people are impulsive and often too trusting – especially online, where normal cautionary instincts seem to be put on hold.
How real is the problem? No figures are available but fraud investigators believe there is cause for alarm. David Loxton, a partner at the law firm Dentons South Africa says, “The incidence of identity theft overall has tripled in recent years. It is a sad truth that the theft of children’s identities is often not reported because it was perpetrated by family members who sell it to criminal syndicates, or parents are just not aware that it has occurred”.
Until, that is, the child is refused admission to write exams or has his or her application for an identity document refused. Another tell-tale sign that identity theft has occurred is a slew of offers from credit card companies, or a demand for overdue tax from SARS.
It is worth remembering that a bad credit record can be hard to erase – it is certainly tiresome. In the meantime, it can have long-term implications, such as the inability to take out a student loan, receive a scholarship or even land that all-important first job. It will inevitably conflict with any attempts to open banking or credit-card accounts – or obtain insurance.
So, what can parents do to prevent their children suffering identity theft? The following practices will mitigate the risk:
- Educate your child about the dangers and agree on safe online behaviour with relation to sensitive personal information.
- Implement strict privacy precautions. Depending on your child’s age, check his or her inbox regularly to see what unsolicited mail he or she is receiving.
- Consider buying identity-theft protection. A service like Identity Guard Credit Alerts will notify people when accounts are opened using their personal information and will initiate remedial action.
- Be aware of social-media cloning, which occurs when criminals gather information from social media profiles and then use it for their own purposes.
- Keep sensitive documents safe. These include identity documents, birth and baptismal certificates, accounts and so on. With personal information and an address, criminals can do just about anything, especially if they have corrupt officials in Home Affairs on their payrolls.
- Apply for a credit report on your child. This will list what accounts have been opened in his or her name. Credit reports can be easily obtained from Compuscan, Experian, Credit Bureau or TransUnion.
In addition, parents should be alert for the following warning signs that their child’s identity has been hacked:
- Credit card offers in the child’s name.
- A call from a debt collector.
- A SARS communication addressed to the child.
An individual’s identity is his or her passport to the world. Protecting your child’s is one of the best gifts you can offer him or her.