Back-to-school season is a hectic time of year: Families shop for new clothes and school supplies, adjust to new routines and, of course, fill out a seemingly endless parade of forms. It's also an ideal time to put some safeguards in place to ensure your child is set up for success—and that means protecting them from the dangers of identity theft.
Unfortunately, just as identity theft is a growing problem for adults, it's an issue that parents of school-aged kids also have to consider. In 2017, over 1 million children suffered from some type of identity fraud and families were forced to pay over $540 million to recover from the damage, according to Javelin Research and Strategy.
According to Experian's new child identity theft survey, child victims are, on average, 12 years old when their identity is stolen. And the resolution process can drag on for years—10 years after an identity is stolen, one out of four victims reported still dealing with issues related to the theft. Many child victims grow up wishing their parents had done things differently to protect them.
Here are five ways to safeguard your school-age children's identity this fall:
1. Don't Be Afraid to Leave out Sensitive Information When Completing Certain Forms
At the beginning of the school year, parents are asked to complete dozens of forms for their kids. It can be easy to go on autopilot when filling them out, but parents need to stay vigilant, says Eva Velasquez, president, and CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center.
"We get into form fatigue because you're just filling stuff out left and right, whether it's for school activities, clubs, health forms, emergency contacts and the like," Velasquez, says. "But a lot of times, they don't need the most sensitive identification credentials. You can leave them blank."
For example, if an after-school activity requires your child's Social Security number, you don't necessarily have to give it to them. Err on the side of withholding the most sensitive information, like Social Security numbers and the like, suggests Velazquez.
2. Ask Questions About How Information Will Be Used and Secured
Some programs will require your child's Social Security number, including federally-funded after-school programs that require SSNs to get their allocated funding,
But it's your right as a parent to find out how it will be used and, most importantly, how the collector plans to store the data. Will the information be stored in a secured facility?
Sometimes the answer is enough to direct you to provide an alternative. For example, if someone is asking for your kid's SSN to prove age, you can refer them to school records. If a sports team is requesting your family's insurance information including group and ID numbers, get reassurance that the data is housed in a secure way and not, as Velazquez puts it, "tossed in a Tupperware box in the coach's trunk."
3. Be Careful About Copies of Important Documents
Some activities or organizations will ask for copies of important documents like your child's birth certificate. You don't have to leave it with them. If they need it to verify age, let them know you're happy to show a copy of the document for verification, but there's no need to store it with them.
"There are a lot of things, as consumers, that are out of our control," says Velazquez. "But limiting self-exposure is one thing you can control."
4. Beware of Child Identity Protection Kits
At the beginning of the year, schools or PTAs often promote child identity protection kits that are used to gather information that could be helpful in the event your child goes missing. Be careful about what kind of information you include in these, especially if you're not going to house the data yourself.
For example, some kits might ask for your children's fingerprints. This isn't really useful if your child is missing. And with the rise of biometric markers to confirm identity, it could be used maliciously if it falls into the wrong hands.
"Parents might feel better, but it's really a false sense of security," says Velazquez. "You don't want to make your children vulnerable to another type of crime by giving out this information."
5. Secure Your Documents at Home
You owe it to your family to make sure important data is stored in a safe place at home, as well. Keep valuable papers like birth certificates, Social Security cards and medical records in a locked file cabinet that can't be easily lifted by thieves. Try to store it in a place in your home that is not heavily trafficked, adds Velazquez.
For more information on how to protect your child from identity theft, visit our guide here.