Jennifer Fiddian-Green is an investigative forensic accountant who has worked extensively with police forces in tracking down identity thieves and money launderers. Fiddian-Green herself was the victim of identity theft—and proof that we all are vulnerable to this type of crime. “They didn’t steal any money from me,” she says. “They took my personal data—the name, the SIN, whatever they could get—and they used it to go steal money from someone else.”
Parents, in particular, should be concerned with the troubling rise of child identity theft. “They’re not going to steal money from your child,” says Fiddian-Green. “They’re going to use the data to go out into the world and be your child. With identity thieves, all they steal from you is data, and the bank, the credit card company, the car loan company and so forth, will all think they are a legitimate person when they’re not. Your child’s capacity as an individual in society—all the ways that we structure ourselves financially—will have been compromised. And then you need to fix it. And it’s very hard to repair the file.”
Protect your child’s SIN
This is the single most important thing you can do when it comes to preventing child identity theft. With just a name and a social insurance number, scammers can start building a credit file. “And you, as the parent of the child, you don’t even know to check,” says Fiddian-Green. “Your child isn’t going to conduct financial transactions, so they’re never going to get a trigger or red flag that something is wrong until later.”
Keep your child’s SIN card under lock and key in a home safe or safety deposit box, along with other documents like passports and birth certificates. And don’t store your child’s SIN number or other information on any computers or handheld devices.
Avoid shady savings plans
In Canada, your child needs a SIN to open a Registered Education Savings Plan (RESP). Sophisticated identity thieves know exactly where to go for data sources of social insurance numbers. So, make sure you know who is responsible for protecting that data. Safeguard your child’s SIN by dealing only with reputable companies when applying for RESP’s. Work with companies that have solid track records who will protect your child’s sensitive personal information.
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Keep it to yourself
Parents and older kids alike can learn to keep personal information off of their social media profiles. “I believe you can have social media profiles and connect with others and maintain a protection so you’re not sharing your personal confidential financial information,” says Fiddian-Green. “Don’t put your date of birth up. Don’t put your address. Keep that stuff separate.” Kids need to realize that even though they may not have money, their personal information is valuable. Falling victim to identity theft is a shattering experience that can take years to recover from. Show your kids that it’s possible to be engaged with friends and family online without presenting your data on a silver platter—don’t make it easy for thieves. And teach them not to accept friend requests from people they don’t know.
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Understand and Mitigate the Risks
Give kids their own devices only when they are ready. They need to learn how to turn off their phone’s geo-tagging feature before they take photos that may indicate where they are. Talk to older teens about the risks of online banking or shopping through their smartphones or through a shared Wi-Fi connection. If possible, use a separate computer with a safe connection to make any online purchases—and only from reputable sites. “If your child is old enough to understand that and think about those things, then that’s going to be helpful to you in assessing whether they’re old enough for this phone.”
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Beware of the devil you know
People you know—even other family members, can potentially steal your child’s identity for their own personal gain. Unscrupulous relatives can use your child’s SIN number to begin a credit file that catches you entirely unaware. “With a child, there shouldn’t be a credit file because there aren’t those financial transactions. So we need to be vigilant in taking care of the data, and check with credit agencies to see if a file has been opened.” You can request a free credit report each year for your child.
For more information on how to protect your child from identity theft and fraud, the Chartered Professional Accountants (CPA Canada) has recently published a booklet called Protecting You and Your Money: A guide to avoiding identity theft and fraud.