Kids and Online Identity Theft
Identity theft affects nearly 1.5 million people per year in the United States. While most of those impacted by these frauds are adults, children make up an increasing number of identity theft victims. Reports vary on the prevalence of child identity theft, with some studies suggesting that as many as one in ten children are the victims of identity theft.
The Link Between Social Media Use and Identity Theft
According to the most recent reports, children spend more time on social media than ever before. In fact, a 2019 study found that children and teens spend between 5 to 7.5 hours per day on various social media platforms. While on social media, children share all types of information about themselves, including their photos, location, and demographic information. As a result, children may become accustomed to the constant divulging of information and may not understand the risks of keeping confidential information private. In fact, a 2022 study found that social media users were 30 percent more likely to experience identity theft.
The Current State of the Laws and Regulations
States are primarily responsible for creating their own consumer protection and privacy laws. Not surprisingly, states approach these issues very differently. However, as a general rule, organizations that come into possession of an individual’s information have a legal duty to protect that information from unauthorized access. That said, many states allow companies to use an individual’s data for legitimate purposes, provided the company makes its intentions clear.
Of course, most social media identity theft cases do not come from data breaches or cyberattacks committed against social media platforms. Instead, social media identity theft is usually the result of a child willingly providing information to someone that they think they can trust.
What Have Social Media Platforms Done to Help Prevent the Problem?
All major social media platforms, including Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook, have age restrictions, preventing anyone under 13 from using the platform. However, while social media platforms require new users to click a box indicating they are over 13, there is no process to verify a minor’s age. Thus, underage social media use is rampant.
Once someone is on social media, there is little that the platforms can do to prevent the sharing—or oversharing—of information. What social media companies are doing, however, is policing posts in an effort to root out known scams. However, considering that many cases of social media identity theft occur through direct messages, these policing efforts often fail to prevent communication between criminals and children.
What Can Parents Do?
To reduce the risk of a child being targeted for social media identity theft, parents should familiarize themselves with the various social media scams and how they are carried out. For example, social media quizzes appeal to children and adults. However, criminals often use quizzes to obtain information about an individual, which may then be used to gain access to their online accounts. For example, a quiz may ask what street you grew up on, what your first pet’s name was, or your favorite vacation spot. While this information may seem innocuous, these answers are commonly used as passwords or to verify someone’s identity.
Parents should also educate their children about the importance of keeping personal information private. For example, a recent survey found that 68 percent of people with a public social media profile shared their birthdays, and 18 percent shared their phone numbers. Identity thieves can use these bits of information to gain credibility in a child’s eyes, potentially resulting in a child trusting the criminal and providing additional information. Along those lines, parents should also consider advising their children that sharing their location on social media is never a good idea. In fact, it’s a good idea to create a list of information that children should never share online without first consulting a parent. While the contents of such a list may vary by age, some of the information may include the following:
- Physical address,
- Phone number,
- Social Security number,
- Full legal name,
- Email address,
- Banking information,
- Parents’ place of employment, and
- Online passwords.
Parents should also set strict privacy settings on any household computer or device a child uses. Additionally, all social medial platforms allow users to keep their birthdate, phone number, address, and other personal information out of public view.
In some cases, parents, friends and family members may unintentionally divulge a children’s sensitive information on social media. For example, posting pictures of a birthday party or wishing a teenager “happy birthday” on their social media page may seem innocent enough, however, this will give the child’s birthday to anyone with access to their social media page. Thus, it is always a good idea for parents to confirm that their own privacy restrictions prevent their posts from being viewed by strangers.
What Can Schools Do to Prevent Child Identity Theft?
Schools’ primary role in preventing child identity theft is ensuring that all student information stored electronically remains secure. According to a recent report, schools across the United States experience a data breach once every three days, for a total of more than 120 breaches per year. In more than 60 percent of these breaches, student information was compromised. Thus, it is imperative that schools implement and maintain robust data security systems that are up-to-date with the most recent cyberattack trends.
Additionally, schools should be cautious in creating social media posts that may inadvertently provide others with information about students. For example, publicly posting a child’s birthday celebration could disclose a child’s birthday to potential identity thieves.