We’re all familiar with identity theft, in which bad guys get your social security number (SSN) and other personal data and pretend to be you, then make illegal purchases and commit other crimes. It can ruin your credit and worse. The other name is “real name impersonation”, since the criminals use information that corresponds to you on all levels.
But they don’t have to. Synthetic impersonation takes a more Frankenstein-like approach. All they need is a valid SSN which they associate with names, addresses, phone numbers, etc. It’s a scam that more than two-thirds of respondents in a new Security.org survey(Opens in a new window) say they don’t know him, but he’s now dominating in impersonation schemes.
Additionally, the report states that “synthetic spoofing is a long-running scam, not a one-time thing.” Indeed, bad actors typically steal SSNs from people who do not regularly check their credit scores or obtain credit reports, including the elderly, immigrants, prisoners, and especially children.
It’s true: if you don’t check your kids’ credit regularly, you might not even know that their SSN or other information is compromised. And 86% of parents have never checked their children’s credit because they haven’t heard that synthetic identity fraud is something to worry about.
Armed with nothing but an SSN, a fraudster can begin applying for credit. They are often turned down, probably due to lack of credit history, but it only takes one lender to say yes. From a credit limit of just $500, they can accumulate up to 10 times that amount over months or years. They can then go on a shopping spree and eventually abandon the fake account, leaving behind a wrecked credit history that your child may not know about until college. Fraudsters prefer younger children’s numbers for this exact reason: no one verifies them, so they have 10 to 15 years to accumulate the fake credit.
How do fraudsters get SSNs? Your child’s number may be in your email, postal mail, on your unprotected computer, or on papers in your garbage cans and recycling bins. Don’t overlook the number of massive data breaches(Opens in a new window) compromising data about you and yours, of course, it’s not always your fault.
How to fight against synthetic identity theft? Real-name identity theft is the crime that credit monitoring and freezing can combat most effectively (although 52% of people don’t even monitor credit using a service). We also recommend that you use identity theft protection software. But it’s harder for fraud alerts and credit freezes to hit someone who only uses an SSN.
The Security.org report, based on a survey of 1,004 American adults (including 503 parents) from September 2022, describes the dangers and some measures to prevent them. The most important thing is not to hand out your children’s SSNs like candy. On forms, leave the field blank unless there is a particularly important reason to share it. Shred paper documents that include it, erase old PCs that might store it (or any data, really), and educate your kids about sharing their SSN, because they shouldn’t. (For more tips, read “5 Easy Habits to Protect Your Data.”) The report also claims that most fraudsters actually know the victim; keep the child’s social security card locked in the safe even when friends and family are visiting.
To find out if you or your child is a victim of Frankenstein fraud, check your credit reports. You are allowed to do this for free once a year using the three major credit reporting agencies – anyone over the age of 13 can use AnnualCreditReport.com(Opens in a new window) to order free reports from Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. For younger children, you may need to provide information such as copies of their social security cards and even birth certificates (as well as your own ID, to prove you’re related), but you can try Experian’s Child Identity Scan.(Opens in a new window)Equifax Minor Children’s Service(Opens in a new window)or use TransUnion’s secure form(Opens in a new window) (never send sensitive account information via email).
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No child should have a credit file (unless you added them as a user on a credit card). So if any of the above offices come back with a report on your offspring, that’s a bad sign. Another is when kids start getting credit card or loan offers in the mail. Collection calls, bills, and IRS notices to your child are, ahem, also major red flags.
After you receive one of these warning signs (or maybe before), you should freeze your child’s credit. Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief and Consumer Protection Act 2018(Opens in a new window) indicates that the credit bureaus must do this free of charge within one business day of a request. Parents can freeze credit for children under 16; older children can freeze their own. This is called a protected consumer freeze(Opens in a new window) for a minor, and it cannot be temporarily lifted once it is in place. You should also report any fraud to local authorities, so they can record it, and to the Federal Trade Commission via IdentityTheft.gov(Opens in a new window).
Before things go wrong, start monitoring credit for yourself and your children. IDShield has an excellent family plan that covers you, a partner and all of your children. It costs twice as much as an individual license, but it’s worth it because it covers all underage dependents in your household.
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