Scammers are targeting minors for employment and tax fraud

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A child's stolen identity can go undetected for years

Most children and teenagers have had little interaction with the financial world. They probably have no credit or work history and have never filed taxes. Until they take their first steps into adulthood — such as applying for student aid in college, for their first credit card or for an apartment — their “identity” may essentially be a blank slate.

That unblemished history makes minors an ideal target for scammers, according to a ConsumerAffairs analysis of federal fraud data. 

Identity thieves target children and teens’ unused Social Security numbers because they are less likely to be detected for long periods of time and because they can be paired with any name and birthdate to be used fraudulently.

The most common reason children and teens have their identities stolen is so scammers can use them for employment- or tax-related fraud, our analysis of identity theft data from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) finds. 

FTC Consumer Sentinel data released in February shows people 19 years old and under accounted for just 2% of the 917,000 identity theft reports in 2023 where age information is available, but they accounted for 15% of employment- or tax-related identity fraud.

That means young people’s stolen identities are much more likely to be used to get a job or file taxes than to commit other types of fraud, such as applying for a credit card. Since the late 2010s, average annual cases of employment or tax fraud against minors reported to the FTC have increased 93% to almost 15,000 a year, ConsumerAffairs found.

Piling up debt with a child’s identity 

In one real-world example reported by FOX13 Memphis last year, a Missouri woman found that her 17-year-old son was a victim of identity theft and that his information had been used for employment in another town in Missouri.

The author of a 2011 study from Carnegie Mellon CyLab Security & Privacy Institute focusing on child identity theft noted that illegal immigration was a key driver behind such crimes in part because minors’ unused Social Security numbers can provide immigrants a way to gain employment when paired with a different name and date of birth.

In one case described in the study, identity protection company AllClear ID discovered that 12 people were using an Ohio 17-year-old’s Social Security number to obtain credit, utilities and employment, ultimately racking up more than $58,000 in bad debt. One suspect was arrested and deported for using the teen’s information for employment.

Despite the fact that adults report significantly more cases of identity theft overall, experts say the FTC data highlights how minors remain susceptible to identity crimes, particularly at a time when scams and data breaches are at or near record highs.

“We tend to think of this as a crime that only impacts adults, and it's not,” Eva Velasquez, president and CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center, a national nonprofit that provides assistance and education to identity crime victims, told ConsumerAffairs.

Last year, just 22,000 cases of identity theft reported to the FTC involved kids or teens, and of those cases, about 62% were related to employment or taxes. That’s a big difference from adults, who are much more likely to have their identities stolen for credit card fraud.

A harsh welcome to adulthood

Experts said the effects of identity crimes on children can be more devastating, too, because the theft may go undiscovered for years.

“It can go undetected until the child becomes an adult and then needs their social security number or credit to gain employment, apply for student loans or car loans or an apartment, for example,” said Megan Cox, an attorney with the FTC’s Division of Privacy & Identity Protection. 

Cox described their information as “a blank slate” that someone could use to commit fraud. 

The 2011 Carnegie Mellon study highlighted an example of a 19-year-old girl named Lindsey from Texas who had accepted an offer for an internship in college. A background check revealed that someone had used her identity for employment for years and that she “was classified as ‘unemployable’ because she did not ‘own’ her” Social Security number. Only after months of working with the credit bureaus, the Social Security Administration and her employer was she able to restore her identity and accept the internship.

Unlike adults who routinely interact with financial and credit institutions, minors may not have an open line of credit or employment that can be monitored for any red flags.

Undetected cases of theft may also not be reported to law enforcement until the victim discovers the crime as an adult, potentially contributing to a wide gap in the number of theft cases reported by minors and adults.

Problem is worse than we know

Still, the data on identity theft doesn’t capture the whole scope of the problem. Velasquez described the numbers in the FTC’s report “as a floor not a ceiling,” noting that there are limitations with the data, including underreporting from some law enforcement and cases where people don’t report the theft to law enforcement at all.

Research from Javelin, a financial research and consulting group, estimates that identity theft affects one out of every 50 children in the U.S., with upward of 1 million kids and teens affected annually. 

“It may be less common than it is for adults, but it's not rare,” Velasquez said.

Once a child or teen’s identity is stolen, Velasquez said, bad actors may then sell the information on the dark web to buyers who would be unable to gain employment with their own identity.

Like with adults, a child’s identity can be exposed through data leaks, which reached a record high in 2023, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center’s latest annual data breach report. They may also be at risk if they share their personal information online. Identities may also be stolen by relatives, and foster children, in particular, are susceptible.

“I tell parents to operate under the assumption that not only is all of their data out in the wild, but so is their kids’ (data). The likelihood it’s been part of a breach is very, very high,” Velasquez said.

Protect your children or grandchildren

One way to limit exposure, Cox said, is to “scrutinize who's asking for their information,” and whether it be a doctor’s office or school, limit the information you provide only to what is strictly required.

“Do they really need your Social Security number? Or can you leave that field blank and then provide them less information?” Cox said.

Velasquez also offered tips for parents and families to protect their children’s identities and safeguard against fraud, including teaching good cyber practices and how to avoid compromising their own information online.

Velasquez and Cox suggest freezing a minor’s credit — an option that is free for children younger than 16 and a tool Velasquez says has “taken away one of the avenues for these bad actors to monetize children’s identities.”

To determine if a child’s identity has been stolen, experts recommend checking with the three major credit bureaus — Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion — to see if there is credit history in their name. Velasquez also recommends watching out for any mail in the child’s name, whether it be a bill, credit card solicitation or anything else that could come from an adult using their identity. There are also paid credit monitoring services.

“I just want to make sure parents realize that there's no shame or embarrassment, so don't be afraid to ask for help and seek out resources,” Velasquez said.

For victims of identity theft, the FTC offers help, including steps to develop a recovery plan for their information, through The Identity Theft Resource Center also offers support to victims of identity theft.

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