By Cody Shultz and Alec Harris — A joint series on privacy also available here: https://augmentedprivacy.medium.com/
According to the U.S. credit bureau Experian, identity theft affects about 1 in 20 Americans each year. According to Javelin’s 2020 Identity Fraud Survey, 13 million consumers in the U.S. were affected by identity fraud in 2019 with total fraud losses of nearly $17 billion. The lesser-known statistic is that minors account for 17% of all identity theft and 25% of all children experience some form of identity theft before they turn 18.
Minors are a great target. They are easy marks for social engineering, often have little to no experience or training in cybersecurity, and are all but guaranteed to be ignorant of the fact their identity was stolen until years later when they first apply for credit, typically through a credit card or auto loan.
Given their vulnerability, it seems logical to expect credit bureaus would provide an easy process for parents or guardians to enact basic protections like a credit freeze. Unfortunately, the opposite is true.
(Note: in the interest of cybersecurity best practices, the hyperlinks have been removed from the article. You should never click any links you find in articles, and instead search for the websites yourself directly.)
Where to Go for Credit Freezes
Credit freezes are inconvenient when needing to apply for a mortgage, open a new credit card, and other hard pulls, but it is an order of magnitude less frustrating than going through an identity theft recovery process.
For your children, however, there’s friction in the process. Each of the three credit bureaus have a slightly different process, and as an example, Equifax lays out the below steps:
Partial screen capture of Equifax’s Minor Freeze Request Form
Once you’ve collected the above documentation, in hard copy, you must then complete a special request form and send it via snail mail to the company. The U.S. Post Office is generally reliable, if a bit slow at times, but there is considerable risk if the piece of mail containing this exceptionally sensitive information gets lost or falls into the wrong hands.
Don’t have a printer or scanner? You may have to head to your local library or a FedEx Office to complete the tasks. This involves another process with significant risks: printers, copiers, and scanners can and have been hacked. Once documents are processed by the machine, copies are sent to criminal elements who are looking for just this sort of information.
Once it makes it way to the credit bureau, anything short of the exact format they require will result in your request being returned to you, via the same slow mail system. My good friend Alec Harris, a career privacy professional, lamented to me that he only managed to get one of his three requests approved the first time, joking that there must be a certain requirement for a minimum paper weight and brightness.
While difficult and time consuming, placing freezes on your children’s identity is well worth the effort. If they are old enough, spend a weekend with your child going through the process. It is a great opportunity to discuss with them the important of privacy, an understanding of credit scores and credit management, and making smart decisions online.
For more information on protecting your children from identity theft, the Federal Trade Commission has a great reference guide: https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/how-protect-your-child-identity-theft