It wasn't until the Social Security Administration threatened to suspend her disability checks in May that Sara Woodington realized her son's identity had been stolen.
Woodington, who lives in Philadelphia with her severely autistic son John, was shocked when she found out that her 17-year-old's Social Security number was listed as being for someone employed in Austin, Texas.
Not only was John hospitalized at the time, but Woodington doesn't think her son will ever be able to hold a job in his life: He takes 37 different medications each day for his severe non-verbal autism.
"[They're] messing with my kid and he can't do anything about it," Woodington said in an interview with Experian. "If I'm not going to stick up for John, nobody is."
Positive that her son was not working in Texas, Woodington quickly realized that John's identity had been stolen and started working to fix it. She called the IRS and the police and began investigating on her own to see if she could find out how her son's personal information had been compromised.
Eventually, Woodington discovered that a man had been using John's Social Security number on his employment forms with several companies in Texas. She doesn't know how he got John's information, but found the fraudster's name, and even called the companies he worked for to ask them for more information.
Woodington has since filed a report with the Philadelphia police and says she is doing everything she can to protect her son and find out how much damage has been done.
To raise awareness of child identity theft and the corrosive impact it can have on families, Experian has designated Sept. 1 to be "Child Identity Theft Awareness Day." The publisher of this blog also recently introduced a Family Identity Protection Service to help parents monitor their children's personal information and protect against fraud.
How Many People Are Impacted by Child Identity Theft?
John's story is just one example of the many tragic cases of child identity theft. 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.
A new survey by Experian found that the average age of a child identity theft victim was 12, and it took the victims or their parents an average of three years to recover from the damage. But 25% of victims were still struggling with the negative effects of identity theft 10 years after it first occurred.
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.
Earlier this summer, Experian surveyed over 500 adults who were victims of identity theft as a child and over 230 parents whose children had their information stolen. The survey found the misuse of their personal information was wreaking havoc on people's personal relations—far beyond the financial burden.
Experian's survey found that in two out of three cases of child identity theft, the victim's Social Security number, date of birth, and name were all believed to have been compromised—enough information for many different types of fraud.
Can My Child Be a Victim of Identity Theft?
Unlike John, whose Social Security number was used for employment fraud, Heather Karpinsky's son had his personal information stolen and listed on a fraudulent online account.
Karpinsky lives in Houma, LA, with her husband, her son Gavin and his twin brother; she noticed Gavin's identity had been stolen last month when the five-year-old began getting strange letters in the mail.
Upon returning from a family vacation, Karpinsky was sifting through a pile of mail when she saw several letters for her son. Assuming they were advertisements, Karpinsky shrugged it off and threw his mail away.
But Gavin kept getting letters, and his mother soon figured out that they were coming from a collection agency.
Confused by why her five-year-old was receiving collection notices, she opened one of the letters to find that a stranger had been using Gavin's personal information on an online account. The collection notice said the payment method for a purchase had been declined, and now the agency was after Gavin for over $180—money that he did not spend. The thief had items shipped to a separate address, and Karpinsky is still trying to figure out if credit cards were opened in Gavin's name.
Initially, Karpinsky was shocked. She had no idea how someone had gotten her son's information and didn't even know that her child's identity could be stolen.
"I didn't realize children could have identity theft," Karpinsky told Experian. "I kept thinking ‘what did I order?' Maybe it was something I paid for with his school."
However, soon after discovering the collection notice, Karpinsky received a letter in the mail from an IT security company notifying her that her son's information had been compromised in a local data breach.
"His name, billing address, date of birth, and insurance information had been stolen by a stranger," Karpinsky said.
The letter was vague but said that Gavin was one of more than a dozen people whose personal information was exposed at a local doctor's office. The notice did not specify which doctor's office the information was taken from, and Karpinsky is still trying to figure out the extent of the damage from the breach. (See: Here's Your Rx to Avoid Medical Identity Theft)
What Can I Do If My Child's Identity Is Stolen?
In cases where parents realize their child's personal information has been compromised, there are several key steps they can take to help resolve any potential impact. But the process can be challenging: 60% of parents in Experian's survey said the process of clearing up their child's identity fraud was not a simple task.
"The difficulty resolving this is one of the most frustrating parts about it," Woodington said, explaining that she was on the phone for several weeks trying to figure out if her son's personal information was still being used.
Experian's report also found that parents and victims who've had an experience with child identity theft are changing the way they think about their personal information as a result of the fraud.
In response to the growing number of child identity theft victims, Experian has launched multiple tools to help parents protect their children's personal information, and urges parents to be vigilant on an ongoing basis.
Parents can check to see if their child's Social Security number has been used to establish an Experian credit file, and can continue to monitor their child's identity to help limit the damage from future fraud.
Just as identity theft is a growing problem for adults, fraudsters are increasingly targeting children. Michael Bruemmer, Experian's vice president of consumer protection, estimates that child identity fraud will impact 25% of all children by the time they turn 18.
"Our free service and educational content can be key resources, but we urge parents to be vigilant on an ongoing basis," Bruemmer said. "If they aren't, the consequences for their children can be damaging and long-term."
For additional coverage of child identity theft, see:
- 7 Ways to Keep Your Children's Identity Safe on Halloween
- 4 Ways to Protect Your Children from Social Media Threats
- 5 Ways to Protect Your Children's ID When School Starts
Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer or other company, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. All information, including rates and fees, are accurate as of the date of publication.
This article was originally published on August 24, 2018, and has been updated.